How the US managed to complete an arch of security in the Pacific around China
- Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
Washington has secured access to four additional military bases in the Philippines, which are located in a key area that will allow it to monitor China.
With this pact, the United States thus completes the arc of regional alliances that already extends from South Korea and Japan, in the north; to Australia, in the south.
The Philippines was the missing link. This country borders two of the biggest sources of tension in the area: Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The agreement, which partially reverses the withdrawal of US troops from what was their colony more than 30 years ago, has been criticized by Beijing.
The authorities of the Asian giant accused their North American counterparts of aggravating the “regional tensions” by continually strengthening its military deployment in the Pacific, Reuters reported.
tightening the noose
The pact is a momentous matterassured analysts and experts in the region.
“There is no contingency in the South China Sea that does not require the passage through the Philippinessaid Gregory B. Poling, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The US is not looking for permanent bases. It’s about sites, not bases,” he explained.
The United States was already able to operate in a limited manner at five military installations thanks to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
However, the new pact gives the US military wider access to the military locations in the Asian country, something that “will allow faster support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, and respond to other shared challenges”, a veiled reference to Chinathe Joe Biden administration said in a statement.
The statement came after US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in Manila on Thursday.
A new basic concept
The US has not specified which facilities its troops will operate in, but it is believed that three of them could be in Luzon, an island located in the extreme north of the country, lThe only large tract of land close to Taiwan, excluding China itself.
Washington seeks access to places where they can be carried out “light and flexible” supply and surveillance operations, instead of bases where large numbers of troops are stationed.
In other words, the agreement does not appear to be a return to the days of the Cold War, when The Philippines once hosted 15,000 US soldiers and two of the largest military installations that that country had in Asia: Clark Field and nearby Subic Bay.
In 1991, the Philippine government ended its internal conflict. The Filipinos had just overthrown the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, and sending home the former colonial masters would consolidate further democracy and independence.
The Vietnam War was long over, the Cold War was coming to an end, and China was a militarily weak country. So, in 1992, the Americans came home, or at least most of them.
30 years have passed and another Marcos has returned to the Malacañang presidential palace.
And what is more important, China is no longer a military wimp and is at the gates of the Philippines.
Manila has watched in horror, but powerless to intervene, as Beijing has launched to redraw the map of the South China Sea, or West Philippine Sea, as that country insists on calling that sea area.
Since 2014, China has built 10 artificial island basesincluding one at Mischief Reef, within the Philippine exclusive economic zone itself.
Until then, relations between Manila and Beijing had not had major problems, said Herman Kraft, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.
“We had a live and let live situation in the South Sea. But in 2012 they tried to take control of Scarborough Atoll. Then in 2014 they started building the islands. The appropriation of territory by China changed the relationship“, he explained.
“We have a very limited capacity against the threat from China,” added the former Philippine ambassador to the US, José Cuisia Jr.
According to him, the Chinese have repeatedly broken their promises not to militarize their new bases in the South Sea.
“The Chinese have militarized those areas, which poses a threat to our territory. Only the US has the power to stop them. The Philippines cannot do it alone.”he admitted.
But this time there will no longer be thousands of US Marines and airmen filling the red light districts of Olongapo or Angeles City.
The history of violence and abuse by US troops in the Philippines remains a sensitive subject. It is estimated that 15,000 children must have grown up aloneyes with their Filipino mothers when his American parents came home.
“We have a long history of inequality in our relationship,” said Renato Reyes, secretary general of the New Patriotic Alliance, a left-wing group.
“The Philippines has been forced to bear the social costs. There is a history of rape, child abuse and toxic waste“, he pointed out.
Leftist groups in the country strongly oppose the return of US forces.
Although there will not be as many troops as before, Washington has now requested access to several new locations, some facing the South China Sea, others north towards Taiwan.
Unofficial reports point to the areas of Cagayan, Zambales, Palawan and Isabela as the preferred options.
The first overlooks Taiwan, the second Scarborough Atoll and the third the Spratly Islands. The new US facilities will be within existing Philippine bases.
American troops will arrive in small groups and by rotation.
The goal, according to Poling, will be to deter China from further expanding its territory in the South Sea while giving the US a place from which to monitor Chinese military movements around Taiwan.
“The Philippines has no way to dissuade China from this alliance”said the expert.
“We are buying BrahMos missiles from India. The US would like to deploy Tomahawk cruise missiles. Together they can hold off the Chinese ships,” he said.
With growing concern over a conflict over Taiwan, the Philippines could offer a “rear access area” for military operations Americans, or even a place to evacuate refugees.
“People forget that there are 150,000 to 200,000 Filipinos living in Taiwan,” Poling said.
Difficult balancing act
But Manila is nowhere near becoming a full member of the US alliance to challenge or resist China’s rise, Professor Kraft warned.
“The Philippines is not doing those things like Australia and Japan, directly challenging Chinese interests in the South Sea or the Chinese East Sea. President Marcos wants to maintain good relations with the US, but he also wants good relations with China to get economic advantages,” he explained.
Beijing has also indicated that it has no intention of allowing the new military agreement between Manila and Washington to cloud its relations with its neighbor.
In an editorial published to coincide with the arrival of the US Secretary of Defense in Manila, the Chinese state daily Global Times accused the US of “setting up the Philippines” and of “trying to push the Philippines to the front line of the confrontation with China”.
“Once again we are caught in the middle,” declared Reyes, who believes that China is a capitalist imperialist power similar to the US.
“The Philippines continues to have a colonial mentality: it sees the US as its big brother,” he lamented.
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