Foreign Policy Blogs

Manila Welcomes U.S. Muscle to Counter Beijing

Manila Welcomes U.S. Muscle to Counter Beijing

Photo: The Filipino Times

After an absence of more than 20 years, American forces will return to the Philippines under a 10-year agreement reached between the two countries on Monday in conjunction with U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Manila. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation agreement seeks to broaden U.S. access to bases on a rotational, temporary basis, and allow the Pentagon to move fighter jets and ships in the area, making the U.S. a more present and capable partner in the region. The agreement also calls for increased joint exercises ranging from disaster response, transnational crime, and maritime security. Under the terms of the deal, the U.S. has promised “not establish a permanent military presence or base in the Philippines,” in compliance with Manila’s constitution.

The agreement constitutes a marked departure from two decades ago, when anti-American sentiment led the Philippine Senate to close down U.S. bases at Subic and Clark in 1991. Despite the closure, American troops continue to trickle in on a temporary basis, particularly following the 1999 seizure by China of a contested reef. Hundreds of U.S. forces were also allowed to hold counter-terrorism exercises with Filipino troops fighting militant Muslims in the southern Philippines, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Of course, anti-American sentiment still lingers, despite Obama’s warm welcome from President Benigno Aquino. Many Filipino activists were angered by the agreement, which they say reverses democratic gains following the shutting down of huge U.S. military bases after a nearly century-long military presence in the former U.S. colony. During Obama’s meeting with Aquino, some 800 protesters gathered, with some activists burning mock U.S. flags and chanting “Nobama, no bases, no war.” Others burned an effigy of Obama riding a chariot pulled by Aquino, depicted as dog.

Over in Beijing, the deal is being perceived as yet another U.S. effort to contain a rising China, which Obama took some pains to refute at a news conference with Aquino at the Malacanang Palace. “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes.” While Obama pressed his message to Beijing of wanting to partner with China in upholding international law, Beijing may not want to play that game if the ruling does not go their way.

Despite China ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1996, ten years later Beijing said it would not accept procedures referring to “binding decisions” and compulsory processes under the law, considering certain UNCLOS rules to be inconsistent with its national policy. Somewhat confusingly, it has similarly chosen to invoke UNCLOS law to seek a binding decision for its claim against Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. China is also party to the Declaration on the Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea, which it signed in 2002. Yet China blatantly ignores Article 5 of that treaty, which calls for “self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes in uninhabited islands and reefs.”

The heart of Manila’s disagreement with China is over sovereign rights in disputed territorial waters, which Manila is currently seeking to clarify through a ruling at the Permanent Court of Arbitration under UNCLOS. In response to the filing, China reiterated it would not accept international arbitration, saying the only way to resolve the dispute was through bilateral negotiations, blaming the dispute on Manila’s “illegal occupation” of the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. Another shoal, the Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal, is claimed by both governments and under Chinese control since 2012, following a tense confrontation between Chinese and Philippine ships. The disputed waters are now guarded by three Chinese coast guard and surveillance ships, and last year the Philippine Defense department discovered 75 concrete blocks, “a prelude to construction,” at Scarborough Shoal – allegedly laid there by the Chinese.

China claims the waters as “traditional fishing grounds,” yet fisherman from around the region were also active for centuries.  The shoal is referenced in official Chinese documents and also appears in 13th century Chinese maps.  China’s first formal claim to the shoal was made in 1935, while Manila says its first claim was in 1937-1938, although it was unable to publicize its claim due to Japanese incursions and invasion.  The shoal did not feature on Philippine maps until 1997, when Manila began to press its claim by taking ownership of the shoal as terra nullius, or “no mans land.”

While awaiting a ruling from UNCLOS on territorial rights in the disputed waters, Manila is still under threat of additional aggression. Most recently, two Chinese coastguard ships attempted to block the supply of food, water and fresh troops to a military outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal in late March. By allowing U.S. troops an increased presence in the Philippines, Manila is clearly showing Beijing that despite its weakened military, Uncle Sam has its back. And in return for the backing of the U.S. military, Obama is counting on the Philippine government to continue to show appropriate restraint when dealing with Chinese aggression. As Obama made clear in his speech, the U.S. prefers any territorial disputes to be handled according to international law, and it is high time for an international referee to step in, separate the fighters and enforce the rules of engagement, in accordance with international law. Yet Obama also made abundantly clear that should international diplomacy fail, and the situation spiral out of control, the U.S. will now be in a better position to defend its ally and contain any hostile territorial grabs by Beijing. Let’s hope this latest show of the U.S. military’s increased presence in the region will be enough to deter any serious conflict in the near future.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666