MANILA — As tensions continue to simmer between the Philippines and China over competing claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines is cleaving more closely to its Mutual Defense Treaty partner, the United States. Manila hosted several meetings this week with U.S. officials to discuss defense, maritime rule of law and strengthening other ties.
The Philippines has been more vocal in the past year about having a stronger stance against what it sees as aggressive territorial claims by China. At the same time the United States has been making a policy shift toward Asia and the Pacific.
As part of the change in focus, the Philippines is welcoming more frequent visits from U.S. military ships.
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta says the increased U.S. presence will help put the Philippines in a better position to assert its claims in the sea. “We think it’s going to make it clear that the United States is engaged in the region and that sends the right signal that states must behave in a reasonable way, in a lawful way,” he said.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have territorial claims in the South China Sea, while China says about 90-percent of the sea is Chinese, based on ancient maps. China has consistently said the disputes are between itself and each individual claimant country, not any outside party, especially not the United States.
In recent years, the Philippines and Vietnam each have had disputes with China over rock formations in an area of the South China Sea that is widely travelled, has abundant sea life and is potentially rich in fossil fuels.
The Philippines has been viewed as pushing for U.S. support in its territorial squabble.
The chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, in Manila for a Mutual Defense board meeting Thursday, reiterated the U.S.’s neutral position on the territorial disputes and again called for the parties’ peaceful management of the issue.
“The Philippine armed forces understand the U.S. position on that and we understand the issues surrounding it as it impacts security of the Philippines as well. So we have good open dialogue and good open communication,” Locklear stated.
China has significantly increased its defense budget in the past decade and is building up its military. The increased U.S. presence in the Pacific is widely seen as a counter to this, especially for countries like the Philippines with a weak military, lacking in resources.
Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore says the increased visits to the Philippines by U.S. ships and officials are a way for Washington “to flex its muscles [in the Asia Pacific] to show it is not going away.” “The U.S. will presumably continue its capacity-building support for the Philippines… the Philippines is the weakest link in all this,” he said.
Admiral Locklear says the capacity-building will have a stronger emphasis on humanitarian and disaster recovery (HADR) exercises that will also have other benefits.
“Improve your inter-operability. Improve your information-sharing. Improve your intelligence. Improve your common and shared values and goals. And all of those add value not only in HADR, but add value to any contingency that you might perceive down the road,” Locklear explained.
Carl Baker is program director of the Pacific Forum of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says muscle-flexing aside, it would not be productive for the U.S., with its struggling economy, to be involved in any confrontation in the region. Instead, he says it is in the interest of U.S. national security to have more economic involvement.
“To engage in a broad way in Asia and not narrowly be seen as a security guarantor. That it sees a need to engage economically simply to help out the U.S. economy because as you know, economies in Southeast Asia are actually quite vibrant,” said Baker.
But the Philippines is looking beyond the U.S. for support. This week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Financial Times newspaper the Philippines would welcome a move by Japan to drop its pacifist military policy, saying this would make it “a significant balancing factor" in the region. The Philippines also has pending deals with Italy and Japan to add boats to its Coast Guard fleet.