Will the US come to the Philippines’ aid in the Spratlys?

Japan has a similar question: In case of an attack on Tokyo, would the Americans risk Los Angeles to retaliate? If Japan feels insecure and starts transforming itself from a pacifist to a “normal” country, the suspicious Koreans and Chinese would respond in a manner that could threaten regional stability. This is why the Americans would always go out of their way to reassure the Japanese in the strongest possible terms. When tensions broke out between Beijing and Tokyo last year over a row in the disputed Senkaku Island, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself categorically pointed out that the disputed island fall under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Tokyo and Washington.

In contrast, the Americans are not as clear when reassuring their Filipino allies. When the Aquino administration first floated the idea that Uncle Sam would surely come to the Philippines’ aid in case of armed conflict in the South China Sea, the US Embassy coldly responded with the old, standard line that the US doesn’t take sides and only wishes to see the peaceful resolution of the disputes. Days later, the American ambassador, apparently under instructions from Washington, said, “I want to assure you that on all subjects we in the United States are with the Philippines… We will continue to consult and work with each other on all issues, including the South China Sea and Spratly Islands.” Yet Washington remains ambiguous on whether or not it would come to the aid of the Philippines in case of a shooting war. Indeed, the good ambassador, as a senior diplomat has pointed out, never even mentioned the Mutual Defense Treaty.

Let’s face it; an assurance of American military back-up is the only insurance the Philippines has against serious Chinese harassments, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) being incredibly weak as it is. The problem, however, is that, as many experts have pointed out, the PH-US MDT does not contain any automatic retaliation clause. It only says that, in case of common threats, both parties would respond “in accordance with their constitutional processes.” This means that the MDT does not bind America to automatically come to help the Philippines case of an attack; indeed, it gives the Americans plenty of room to bail out. The question now is, if worse comes to worst, would they bail out? I think the answer is more nuanced than most people realize.

The United States has many considerations to consider, and chief among them is the growing importance, in the eyes of the Obama administration, of Washington’s relations, on one hand, with Beijing, and, on the other hand, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in general and Manila in particular.

Contrary to the militant Left’s assertions that the Americans are out to encircle China through gunboat diplomacy, it’s widely accepted among students of international relations that the Americans need the Chinese, and vice versa. Firstly, the investments and trade ties between the two powers are worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Secondly, China has trillions of dollars of US Treasury bills in its reserves, and America needs China to continue buying these bills to fund the huge US deficit. Thirdly and perhaps more importantly, America needs China’s cooperation on many multilateral issues, including Sudan, Libya, the Middle East, climate change, Iran and North Korea.

There is, therefore, some truth to Senator Joker Arroyo’s assertions that the Aquino administration’s insistence that the US would come to the aid of the Philippines is just “wishful thinking.” The United States is, at the very least, unwilling to risk any armed confrontation with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Chinese know this, which is why they have been trying to test Uncle Sam’s mettle since 2009, when they elevated their claims on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea to the level of “Core Interest”(which means they consider these claims to be as important as Tibet and Taiwan). Indeed, prior to Chinese harassments and incursions against Philippine and Vietnamese interests, the Chinese had harassed the USS Impeccable, an American surveillance vessel, off Hainan Island that year. And all these come amid news of China’s acquisition of stealth fighters, plans foracquiring aircraft carriers, and, more significantly, development of non-traditional weapons system like anti-satellite and anti-carrier missiles.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the defenseless Philippines would have to thread the dangerous waters of the South China Sea by itself. Things are actually much more complex.

Sure, it’s not in the interest of the United States to be involved in any armed conflict with China; but this consideration must be balanced with another consideration: the new policy thrust of the Obama administration on East and Southeast Asia. Amidst the rise of new regional powers, the United States intends to maintain its influence in Asian affairs. To do this, Washington must convince its regional friends that the United States is a reliable partner. If the United States fails in this regard, its regional partners could succumb to China’s influence. This is why America is reaching out to Vietnam, putting more importance on its relationship with ASEAN, and reaffirming its ties with Japan. This is also why I think the American ambassador was specifically instructed by Washington to reassure the Philippines of American support, although the assurance remains strategically ambiguous.

Secondly, and this has been articulated by no less than Secretary Clinton herself, it’s in the United States’ interest to keep the South China Sea open for all. There are two big reasons: One, making that sea a Chinese lake would limit the movement of the American Seventh Fleet. Two, the bulk of oil shipments from the Middle East that fuel the industrialized economies of Japan and South Korea pass through the South China Sea, and letting China control these sea lanes could threaten the security of these vital economies.

The American game plan, therefore, is to do a tough balancing act in order to achieve three objectives: to avoid antagonizing China without cozying up to it too much; to reassure ASEAN friends of the viability and reliability of their strategic partnership with the United States; and to keep the South China Sea open for all.

As for the Philippines, as I said in a previous post, there is no other choice but to continue to seek the cooperation of its ASEAN friends, and of the United States, in order to get Beijing to agree on a binding code of conduct in the disputed territories; and to reform the AFP and hasten its modernization, with the Navy and the Air Force as the main priorities, in order for the Philippines not only to enforce oits claims but also to protect its patrimony.

But in the meantime, Manila has to solicit and negotiate America’s pledge of military support in case of armed conflict in the disputed waters, since it doesn’t have a credible defense posture to back its diplomacy up. The good news is that, obviously, the Aquino administration understands this very well. The bad news, however, is that it has been dangerously clumsy in pursuing this. Instead of consulting and negotiating with Washington, through the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), on how the MDT could apply on the Spratlys dispute, for instance, Malacanang spokespersons pushed Washington against the wall by publicly making hopeful remarks regarding American military support in case of armed conflict. Manila should avoid these kinds of dangerous faux pas.

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