Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.05.14

The U.S. is Back to the South China Sea

JBpress on May 9, 2014

After 22 years of absence, the U.S. Navy and Air Force will return to their former Philippine bases, Subic Bay and Clark in Central Luzon. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the United States and the Philippines could be a game changer in the South China Sea. Now the key question is "Will Beijing react to this historical development and, if so, how?"

President Obama visited Manila on April 28 and 29 to reaffirm Washington's commitment to defend her former colony, the Philippines. During the visit, he and President Aquino announced that the two nations had agreed to an EDCA. According to a White House fact sheet, the new security agreement will contribute to the following:

1) helping the alliance continue to promote the peace and stability
2) updating and strengthening defense cooperation to meet 21st century challenges
3) facilitating the enhanced rotational presence of U.S. Forces
4) facilitating humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the region
5) improving opportunities for bilateral training, and
6) supporting the Armed Forces of the Philippines to establish a minimum credible defense.

What do these mean to the Philippines and her East Asian neighbors? These bureaucratically worded diplomatic expressions are too ambiguous for ordinary people. In order to guess Washington's true intentions, the following explanations may be helpful:

1) The United States will not allow any entity to change the status quo in the South China Sea.
2) The bilateral alliance is now to deal with new challenges from China.
3) The U.S. will not re-establish permanent bases in the Philippines. But U.S. planes, warships and troops will have more access to Filipino bases and will rotate almost permanently.
4) The U.S. forces will continue to operate in the South China Sea no matter what.
5) The U.S. will conduct more military drills and exercises lest contingencies should occur.
6) The Filipino armed forces should be strengthened because they do not have a minimum credible defense capability.

According to the White House paper, the United States is also helping to construct a Philippine National Coast Watch Center in Manila that will assist the Philippine Coast Guard. The purpose is, of course, to let Manila's small coast guard enhance its information sharing and interagency coordination, so that the Philippines need not use her navy in a possible maritime confrontation.

It is almost crystal clear, in the eyes of ordinary Japanese, that those measures are about China and China is a real loser in this round. However, Obama stated in Manila that, "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."

He also tried to play down the significance of the EDCA by saying that, "I want to be very clear. The United States is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases," he noted. "At the invitation of the Philippines, American service members will rotate through Filipino facilities." However, no matter what Obama said, Beijing would not take it at face value.

How effective the new EDCA will be is an open question, because it was the nationalistic Filipinos who kicked U.S. forces out of their Philippine bases in 1992. It was at the end of the Cold War when a newly empowered, post-Marcos Philippine Senate rejected a renewal of the U.S.-Filipino base treaty and placed constitutional restrictions on the presence of foreign forces.

No wonder that not everyone in Manila is happy with the new agreement, because the EDCA was negotiated behind closed doors and made public only after it was signed. Many Filipinos still seem to harbor mistrust towards the U.S., which they fear continues to treat the Philippines as a colony, while aiming to remain on cordial terms with China.

Beijing seems to have already reacted to this new situation in the South China Sea. On May 2, a few days after Obama left the Philippines, China's state-owned oil company moved and stationed a giant deep-sea oil rig to waters near the Paracel Islands. The rig was reportedly accompanied by many Chinese PLA Navy vessels.

It still remains to be seen whether this was a move by China to test the intensions of the United States. Pundits have started anticipating a Chinese official announcement of a new ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) over either the Yellow Sea or the South China Sea in the foreseeable future. Although nobody knows when it will come, it is probably just a matter of time.

In a recent editorial, China's Global Times asserted that, "China follows a moderate policy. But no country can always show a smiling face to the world. China shouldn't be angered easily, but if its interests are infringed upon, a strong retaliatory move should be expected." Recent history also shows that China has never accepted a defeat without retaliating against its adversary. This is a neighbor that Japan has been dealing with for at least the past 18 centuries.