The United States and the Philippines began negotiations last Wednesday to increase the rotational US military presence in the country. These discussions hope to secure a “framework agreement” that would allow greater numbers of US troops to be deployed to Filipino bases. Currently, the US and the Philippines stage annual joint military exercises as well as conducting counter-terrorism training.
As China has increasingly assumed a more aggressive stance in pressing its territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines government hopes that this agreement will help it defend its own claims. Recently, a territorial dispute between the Philippines and China has developed over the Scarborough Shoals in the South China Sea. The islands are thought to lie above rich oil and gas fields.
Last year, an uneasy standoff resulted when both China and the Philippines sent naval vessels to enforce fishing rights among the islands. Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said in a statement on Wednesday that “maritime security and maritime domain awareness will be given a boost” through these talks with the US.
While the US doesn’t have permanent military bases in the Philippines, a Visiting Forces Agreement dating back to 1999 has allowed for US troops to rotate through the Philippines and for the US Navy to make ports of call. In the statements made by the Del Rosario, the Philippines appears to hope that increased US forces will help its own military modernize and provide further security in the meantime.
Although he called for peace, he also emphasized that the Philippines will “do what is necessary in order to defend what is ours…” As the Scarborough Shoals are in fact closer to the Philippines than China, the Filipino government has seen them as part of their “exclusive economic zone” as defined by the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. China points to historical precedents for its own claim.
Part of the “pivot”
These negotiations can be seen as part of the strategy of “pivoting” to Asia declared by President Obama’s administration. Other moves have included stationing the US Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships out of Singapore, bolstering the number of Marines in Australia, and continued extensive military cooperation with Japan. One of the core objectives of the US has been preserving the freedom of navigation and economic activity in the Asia-Pacific. Territorial disputes can threaten these freedoms as one country attempts to deny other countries access to fishing zones and sea lanes.
As the trade negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership near a close, the tangible benefits of ensuring open trade and navigation are clear. In addition, the US wants to counter the Chinese presence in the Asia Pacific. Strengthening military ties with countries like the Philippines will help the US position military assets, allowing greater power projection in the area.
However, increasing US military presence could have the adverse effect of escalating tensions. China might see it necessary to assert its own growing naval strength to demonstrate its maritime power to other nations. As the US usually does not seek to get involved in issues of sovereignty in disputes (for example, the US only recognizes the Japanese administration of the disputed Senakaku Islands), territorial issues like that between China and the Philippines have the potential to be a continued source of tension.
The danger is that a local incident might escalate and force the US to act on its mutual defense commitments. Moving forward, the US should work to communicate its intentions clearly to China. At the same time, it is vital to reassure Asian allies that the US military presence will continue to be strong. The US needs to ensure that China cannot push it into a position, where it has to choose between unwanted escalation or reneging on its obligations.