–By Malladi Rama Rao
In the backdrop of rising tension at sea with China, the Philippines is all set to modernise its military, particularly its aged fleet. Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario was in Washington this week to enlist the US help in his country’s resolve to ‘stand up to any aggressive action’.
His talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials brought forth the promise of help since the US has been active in the Asia- Pacific region for a while. The nature of American help to Manila will take time to crystallise. Both nations are working ‘to determine what are the additional assets that the Philippines needs’ and ‘how best the US can provide them’.
The US and the Philippines are bound by a defence treaty signed in 1951. The treaty calls for mutual defence in the event of an attack in ‘the Pacific area’ that includes the resource rich and strategic South China Sea, where besides the Philippines, Vietnam finds its interests under the Chinese threat that emanates from Beijing’s stake in the waters. Bulk of Chinese energy supplies from the Middle East and North Africa pass through these waters to the mainland. More over, the seabed is rich with oil and gas.
President Benigno Aquino government is deploying its navy’s flagship, the Rajah Humabon to safeguard the Filipino interests in the disputed waters. A former American frigate, the Rajah Humabon, is one of the world’s oldest warships that had seen action during WWII.
Being a poor country, the Philippines generally buys old but battle worthy military hardware but in the changing scenario, it is looking at ‘leasing’ as a better option for quickly upgrading the navy and air force. Operational lease is therefore the new buzz word in Manila to quickly lay hands on fairly new equipment. Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said that they have a budget of 11 billion pesos (£157 million) to upgrade the navy alone.
The Filipino plans lend credence to the view amongst the strategic community that the events unfolding in the South China Sea will play a decisive role in shaping the developments of the Asia-Pacific region. And going by what prominent American speakers said at the conference on Maritime Security in the South China Sea (held at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS) the United States is determined to remain actively engaged in that process.
Will the US play a pro-active role? The answer to the question depends very much on how one defines the expression pro-activism. The American statements and military training exercises in the South China Sea are seen by Beijing as escalating tensions, notwithstanding the US counsel to all sides ‘to exercise self-restraint’ and ‘not to undermine peace and stability’.
Prominent Republican Senator, John McCain, who spoke at the CSIS conference, noted that the world’s geopolitical centre of gravity is shifting to the Asia-Pacific region. So, he said ‘US will not withdraw or be pushed out of the Asia-Pacific region’. He made these observations three days before President Obama announced his forces drawn down from Afghanistan with his eyes firmly set on his re-election bid.
McCain’s views don’t reflect the official position though they may have a bearing on the White House thinking. Significantly, Philippine foreign minister met McCain on the sidelines of the CSIS conference and briefed him of the ground situation.
Officially, the US has not taken any public stand on the various claims in the South China Sea. Its refrain is ‘Our interest is ensuring freedom of navigation’. Will America risk deepening of strains with China? It may not in the short run.
As of now its hands are full in northern Africa and Middle East besides the Af-Pak region. This doesn’t mean the US will remain a bystander, and allow its larger geo-political and strategic interests go by default. Commitment to treaty allies will come into play therefore and this will not be to the liking of the Chinese leadership.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai has made a blunt response to the nuanced statements coming from Hillary Clinton. Pointing out that the United States is not a claimant state to the dispute in the South China Sea, he said on Wednesday, June 23: ‘So it is better for the United States to leave the dispute to be sorted out between the claimant states’. And went on to remark: ‘I believe the individual countries are actually playing with fire, and I hope the fire will not be drawn to the United States’.
Put simply, this is a direct warning for the United States to stay out of its South China Sea disputes. The Chinese official can be expected to echo the same view when he meets US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in Hawaii later this month. The meeting is the first co-hosted consultative on Asia-Pacific affairs and was the outcome of Chinese President Hu’s visit to the White House in January. Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai Cui has said that the South China Sea is not on the agenda but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted that this (South China Sea issue) would certainly be ‘one of the most important issues on the agenda’. Besides economic interests, the US has a stake in political stability in the region.
This week the disputed waters are hosts to naval exercises. US navy conducted exercises with the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore and staged games of simulated encounters with enemy ships. China conducted its own exercises on the northern edge of the sea, near Hainan Island. But dispatched a naval patrol boat, the Haixun-31, to Singapore through the area where the US was conducting its war games.
China, Vietnam and the Philippines are all scheduled to begin drilling for oil and gas in the South China Sea in July. On its part, China is launching a massive deep sea drill. Vietnam has contracted with a Canadian oil firm, Talisman Energy, to drill in a quadrant that China has licensed to a rival oil firm. On behalf of the Philippines, Forum Energy is going to begin drilling in an area where several months ago it had a confrontation with Chinese naval patrol boats.
The launch of these oil exploratory missions will coincide with United State’s joint naval exercises with both Vietnam and the Philippines in the next two weeks. All this sabre rattling is no more than a first round shadow boxing match where points scored are important.
(* this article appeared first on POREG.ORG under the heading ‘Playing with Fire in South China Sea’)