A prominent American security expert has suggested to Congress that the U.S. declare the security of shoals and islands controlled by the Philippines in the disputed area of the South China Sea falls within the scope of their bilateral treaty.
Top U.S. officials have repeatedly made a similar declaration regarding Japan’s Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands, but have not done so with those held by the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Walter Lohman, director of the Center for Asia Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday that it’s time for the U.S. to provide that assurance to its staunch ally in Asia.
“I think we should change our position on the application of the U.S.-Philippine security treaty to cover features in the South China Sea that are currently occupied by the Philippines and under its jurisdiction,” Lohman said. “Currently, we're ambiguous in that regard.”
China claims most of the South China Sea and is pursuing a rapid program of artificial island construction in the region. Together with a number of countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines is one of the most vocal critics of China's territorial claims.
Following a standoff between Chinese ships and the Philippine navy three years ago, China took control of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground that the Philippines says is within its exclusive economic zone.
Some experts believe China will seek to assert its control over the islands in the South China Sea by building military facilities on these shoals, posing new threats to islands in the area controlled by the Philippines.
Lohman also told lawmakers that in light of Chinese aggression in the region, the U.S. should increase its military aid to the Philippines. “I would suggest that Congress double the FMF budget, the Foreign Military Financing budget, for the Philippines,” he said.
“Among the many other sort of hardware things we're talking about, get the Philippines the third Coast Guard cutter that they have requested and has been talked about,” Lohman added.
However, Representative Brad Sherman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Asia-Pacific subcommittee, expressed his worry that the South China Sea dispute would drag the U.S. into a shooting war with China.
“Everything at the Pentagon is designed to say, ‘How can we ignore or at least downplay the problems we face in the Middle East and elsewhere and do our procurement and our research to confront China in a glorious war — or better yet, nonwar — over islets of ... incredibly little value to the purported owners and of no value — at least, we don't own them — to the United States?' ” he said.
Freedom of navigation
The U.S. has consistently declared it is not taking sides on the disputes over the South China Sea, but insists that freedom of navigation in the region needs to be preserved. It has also stressed that any disputes over sovereignty of the islands must be dealt with in a peaceful manner.
Officials say Chinese aggression in the South China Sea has driven the Philippines even closer to strengthening its security alliance with the U.S.
Last year, Manila signed an agreement giving the U.S. more access to Philippine military facilities. Last May, a U.S. plane flew from Clark Air Base in the Philippines for a surveillance mission of Chinese island-building.
Just this past week, Manila announced its decision to reopen the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay, nearly 200 kilometers east of Scarborough Shoal, for military use, leading to the possibility it may be used by U.S. forces again.