News / Asia

    Will New Defense Pact Impact US Support for Philippines in Sea Disputes?

    FILE - U.S. and Philippine Navy servicemen aboard patrol boats conduct a boat manoeuvre exercise past a fishing boat during a joint annual military exercise called "Carat" at the former U.S. military base Sangley Point in Cavite city, west of Manila, June
    FILE - U.S. and Philippine Navy servicemen aboard patrol boats conduct a boat manoeuvre exercise past a fishing boat during a joint annual military exercise called "Carat" at the former U.S. military base Sangley Point in Cavite city, west of Manila, June
    Simone Orendain
    The newly signed defense agreement between the Philippines and the United States is widely seen as a boost for the Philippines’ military at a time of increased tensions with China.

    But analysts say the extent of U.S. support remains ambiguous, making it unclear how the pact might affect future confrontations between Manila and Beijing.

    The so-called “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” will open Philippine bases to more U.S. troop visits, pave the way for additional bi-lateral military exercises and augment the Philippines information-gathering abilities at sea.

    It also allows for U.S. forces to store vessels, aircraft and military equipment at select Philippine installations for the next 10 years.  
     
    Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research head Rommel Banlaoi says the training in sea surveillance will be crucial.
     
    “Access to information in the maritime domain can help the Philippines avoid any accident in the sea, that might escalate tension in the South China Sea,” he said.
     
    Banlaoi sees the maritime-related portions of the agreement as a boon for the country’s underfunded military as it prepares for conflicts in the heavily contested sea, seen by many as a serious potential flashpoint in Asia.

    Maritime squabbling

    The Philippines and China are squabbling over who owns outcroppings in the South China Sea.  Manila has filed an international arbitration case questioning Beijing’s claims to practically the entire sea.

    The Philippines says the contested rocks are well within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.  But Beijing says that based on ancient maps, it has “indisputable sovereignty over South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters.”  It has rejected the arbitration case.
     
    Spratly Islands, China Sea Territorial ClaimsSpratly Islands, China Sea Territorial Claims
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    Spratly Islands, China Sea Territorial Claims
    Spratly Islands, China Sea Territorial Claims
    Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the sea, which is abundant in marine life, believed to hold vast hydrocarbon reserves and is a major trade route.
     
    Two years ago the two countries were in a months-long standoff at Scarborough Shoal, which is about 225 kilometers west of the Philippine province Zambales.

    The encounter ended when Chinese surveillance ships permanently based themselves at the shoal, keeping local fishermen out.
     
    Banlaoi says having maritime domain awareness skills will help the Philippines avoid such confrontations in the future.
     
    The American military equipment could also come into play. According to the defense pact, although all of the prepositioned hardware will be for the exclusive use of American troops, it could be used to enhance both sides’ defense capabilities.
     
    Unclear commitment

    But it remains unclear under what circumstances U.S. forces in the region would come to the Philippines aid in the event of another confrontation in the South China Sea. Under their mutual defense treaty, the U.S. would defend the Philippines metropolitan area and its military if they are under threat of attack.

     
    FILE - U.S fighter jets on standby on USS George Washington aircraft carrier while the USS Cowpens passes by, in the South China Sea, 170 nautical miles from Manila, Sept. 2010.FILE - U.S fighter jets on standby on USS George Washington aircraft carrier while the USS Cowpens passes by, in the South China Sea, 170 nautical miles from Manila, Sept. 2010.
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    FILE - U.S fighter jets on standby on USS George Washington aircraft carrier while the USS Cowpens passes by, in the South China Sea, 170 nautical miles from Manila, Sept. 2010.
    FILE - U.S fighter jets on standby on USS George Washington aircraft carrier while the USS Cowpens passes by, in the South China Sea, 170 nautical miles from Manila, Sept. 2010.
    ​Security analyst Carl Thayer of the Australia Defense Force Academy says the Philippines expects some sort of deterrent by having American troops around.
     
    “But deterrence only works if the party providing deterrence is willing to act.

    Once the bluff is called and the U.S. doesn’t act, its credibility is undermined.

    But the U.S. doesn’t want to put its credibility on [the line] for every barren rock on the South China Sea that’s contested, because it doesn’t take sides,” he said.
     
    The United States has refrained from weighing in on the merits of various countries’ territorial claims in the South China Sea, saying it supports talks among the involved nations to resolve disputes.
     
    Thayer says much of the territory at the heart of the dispute is likely not covered by the mutual defense treaty because it was signed in 1951, before the Philippines started laying claim to the reefs and rocks.

     
    U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to military troops at the Fort Bonifacio Gymnasium in Manila, Apr. 29, 2014.U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to military troops at the Fort Bonifacio Gymnasium in Manila, Apr. 29, 2014.
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    U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to military troops at the Fort Bonifacio Gymnasium in Manila, Apr. 29, 2014.
    U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to military troops at the Fort Bonifacio Gymnasium in Manila, Apr. 29, 2014.
    During President Barack Obama’s speech before a few hundred U.S. and Philippine troops in Manila Tuesday, he said America’s commitment to defend the Philippines is “ironclad.”
     
    At the Philippines Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research institute, Banlaoi says Obama’s statement is true, as a matter of policy.
     
    “But when it comes to operations, I don’t think it’s automatic.  Because there is no automatic retaliation clause in the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.
     
    Obama "Evasive"


    Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based Asia geopolitical analyst, says President Obama remained “evasive” on whether that commitment would apply to an armed conflict in the contested sea and the Philippines should not assume Washington will intervene in the next standoff with China.
     
    FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama speaks next to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III during a joint news conference in Manila, Apr. 28, 2014.FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama speaks next to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III during a joint news conference in Manila, Apr. 28, 2014.
    x
    FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama speaks next to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III during a joint news conference in Manila, Apr. 28, 2014.
    FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama speaks next to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III during a joint news conference in Manila, Apr. 28, 2014.
    “Relying on America to push back China seems to be a not very viable option.  And that is why the Aquino administration should be very careful in how it deals with China in the coming months.

    Because after the Philippines decided to file the memorial on March 30th against China, the Chinese have been very much enraged,” he said.
     
    China had a muted response to the signed defense agreement, calling on all sides to continue efforts to maintain peace and stability.
     
    Representatives from the Chinese, Philippines and U.S. militaries are all expected to participate in RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) drills near Hawaii in July. It will mark the first time Chinese forces participate in the annual exercise.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Taichi Robinhood
    May 03, 2014 5:31 AM
    Aquino is riding on the back of the American tiger and he will end up inside for sure.
    In Response

    by: Ian from: USA
    May 04, 2014 3:50 PM
    to Taichi,
    In my opinion, at this moment, it is better for Aquino to sit on the back of the American tiger than inside the greedy Chinese shark stomach.
    and to Neal Weaver.
    I don't think any western mind could come up with such a weird theory about Russia takes Canada and India takes Australia
    In Response

    by: Neal Weaver from: Canada
    May 03, 2014 1:59 PM
    America should reserve their military powers to protect their British colonies (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and fight no China. If America gets into a nuclear war with China, I am sure America will lose their military power to protect their brother countries (Canada, Australia and New Zealand). India and Japan will take over Australia and Russia will take over Canada. America should protect their brothers, not Philippines.

    The geographic nature in that region does not and will not allow any country to claim a front yard and a backyard, believe me.

    by: Neal Weaver from: Canada
    May 02, 2014 3:40 PM
    Philippines can only claim the interest in Philippines Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia and China can claim the interest in South China Sea. The geographic nature in this region does not and will not allow any country to claim a front yard and a backyard. If the natural resources are in Philippines Sea, Vietnam, Malaysia and China can not claim any interest in Philippines Sea.

    In Response

    by: Ian from: USA
    May 05, 2014 12:21 AM
    to Jack,

    China has use no logic nor does it obey international law . After the US and its allies withdrawn from the war in Vietnam , China pretended to aid the North Vietnamese and invaded, stolen the Paracel islands group from South Vietnam in 1974 . had China really been North Vietnam's comrade, it would return the islands to North Vietnam . Then China became more greedy and yanked some of the islands of the Spratly group from North Vietnam in 1988 . Recently China invaded the Scarlborough and other reefs near the Philippines . Then in January 2014 it sending war ships encroaching James shoal which claimed by Malaysia . So who is the one who are encroaching practically all other Southeast Asian countries' beach front . Who is the new greedy imperialist of this century ?
    In Response

    by: Ian from: USA
    May 04, 2014 4:03 PM
    I believe you are wrong, it is nonsense about a country such as Philippines is entitled of only one sea when it has ocean exposure all around it .
    Canada, US have a front yard & two side yards each. Mexico has two side yards , Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama each has two side yards.
    For Japan and Philippines, they should entitled to a front yard, 2 side yards and a rear yard..and no matter how you want to side with China , it should have one side yard and should not encroaching on the south-east Asian countries' beach fronts
    In Response

    by: SEATO
    May 04, 2014 3:53 AM
    As far as China was concerned,its southernmost border line stretched as far as Hainan Island.There were no marine dispute in the South China Sea in the first place. China just made a claim and used force to assert sovereignty over the entire South China Sea,which is totally unacceptble.How can you resolve a dispute when China keeps forcing unfair terms and conditions on you simply because China is a much stronger and more influential than their neighbours
    In Response

    by: jack from: us
    May 03, 2014 3:41 PM
    Mr Weaver, the west Philippines sea is south China sea renamed
    to suit the Philippines.There are many overlapped EEZ between these countries, big or small.Many contested areas were only
    recently claimed by the Philippines ,emboldened by the 1982 UNCLOS.You cannot claim parts of what others have claimed
    before you just because they have now fallen under your EEZ.
    If the same logic is applied, then Malaysia and Brunei and China can now claim parts of PH because they now fall under
    their EEZ.Resolve territorial disputes first, then talk about EEZ.,
    Inot the other way around.Overlapped EEZ must also be discussed.

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