Sunday, April 15, 2012

US - Philippines - China: An uneasy triangle in the South China Sea

Late last week, a Philippine naval vessel - the largest in its fleet - intercepted Chinese fishing boats in a disputed area of the South China Sea, only to be confronted by two Chinese surveillance ships.  A tense standoff emerged, but diplomacy seems to be working - the Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing have been discussing an agreement for both sides to stand down.  The situation remains tense however; although the Philippine vessel has left the area, coast guard vessels have taken its place and a third Chinese surveillance ship has arrived.  

Although the Philippines and China seem to be working towards an agreement, the situation may soon be exacerbated by joint naval exercises between the Philippines and the United States planned to start this week. The location of the exercises is not far from the Spratly Islands, a small string of islands claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.  The exercises with the Philippines underscore the US's refocusing military attention in Asia, offering a chance to strengthen its position and presence.

The Philippines is placed in the most precarious position of all in this situation.  Of course it wants to retain close ties with the US, since it gets most of its military assistance from us (including its largest vessel involved in the standoff last week).  However, it also must remain acutely aware of the image it is projecting to China, obviously the largest power in the region and one the Philippines does not want to irritate.  Economic ties to China have improved, and military relations had as well recently, as Chinese incursions into the disputed territory had decreased.

China does not want the United States involved in what it deems a regional dispute.  This explains the recent decrease in Chinese presence around the Spratly's, as China realizes such moves may appear aggressive, causing the smaller powers in the region to look to the US for back-up.  Apparently the Chinese fishing boats did not get the memo.

The United States' position in this matter is convoluted, as usual.  On the one hand, it wants to increase its power projection in the area and ensure shipping lanes remain open and secure.  On the other hand, it does not want to ratchet up the tension unduly.  The planned naval exercises with the Philippines would normally appear routine, but with the standoff still in place, they now take on a more aggressive appearance.  Although it may be tempting for the US to offer to assist in the diplomatic resolution of the standoff, this is an issue that must be resolved by China and the Philippines themselves.

China's reaction to these exercises bears watching, as it will indicate its overall stance toward the US's presence in these troubled waters.  Perhaps the three countries should try a version of the "fun games" arranged by the Philippines and Vietnam navies - basketball and football games held on one of the Spratly Islands as a novel trust building measure.  

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