Thursday, March 27, 2014

New Ties, New Risks in the South China Sea

After nearly a year of intense bilateral negotiations, the Philippines and United States have overcome previous stumbling blocks and reached a "consensus" on the contours of a new defense pact. Formal finalization of the deal is expected to coincide with US President Barack Obama's scheduled official visit to the Philippines in late April.

After a series of failed diplomatic overtures towards China, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has now placed strategic hope in revitalized and bolstered military ties with the US, a move aimed in part at counterbalancing China's rising assertiveness over contested territories in the South China Sea.

Alarmed by China's recent reported incursions into Philippine-controlled maritime territories, including this month's blockade of Philippine ships from accessing the Second Thomas Shoal, Aquino recently recalibrated his government's negotiating position to allow for a stronger, more permanent US presence on Philippine soil.

Since 2002, as part of Washington's so-called global "war on terror", approximately 500 American troops from the US's Special Operations Command Pacific have been stationed on a rotational basis on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

US troops have provided logistical, technical, and, according to certain reports, combat assistance to the Armed Forces of the Philippines in their fight against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf insurgent group and other extremist groups with bases in the southern Philippines.

Signaling a more external orientation, the Philippines recently revised the title of the proposed new bilateral defense pact from an agreement on an "Increased Rotational Presence" to one known as "Enhanced Defense Cooperation" (AEDC). While recent Philippine-US military cooperation has focused on domestic threats, the new pact's unspoken aim will be to enhance Manila's deterrent capacities vis-a-vis China in contested maritime areas.

According to an exclusive report by the local Manila Bulletin, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in late February sacked one of the top members of the Philippine negotiating panel, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos King Soreta. The cause: his apparent insistence on clear-cut clarification of provisions on the control over and access to temporary US facilities to be established within Philippine military camps under the new agreement.

Disagreement over those provisions bogged down the first four rounds of the negotiations. Soreta - who reportedly had heated discussions with his superiors and formerly headed the American Affairs division of the DFA - was demoted to overseeing the Foreign Service Institute. Once Soreta was sidelined the negotiations accelerated, according to sources familiar with the situation.

By mid-March, Filipino officials declared that prior concerns over access to military facilities were "sufficiently addressed" and that a round of talks in late March will iron out final details. Philippine Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino recently said it was "safe to say there is already consensus" on the issue of how Philippine and US troops will share military facilities. Philippine officials have also said that both sides have agreed that any US-built military facilities would be for joint use, and that there will be no exclusively US-controlled areas within Philippine bases.

There have been no verified reports of the exact details of the facilities to be built by the US under the pact, nor has Manila indicated the precise nature of the assistance it seeks from Washington. Strategic analysts contend that the Philippines is pushing hard for leasing advanced American naval hardware geared towards countering, among other things, Chinese paramilitary vessels now patrolling contested features in the South China Sea.

According to the Philippine Department of National Defense, "The proposed agreement will allow the sharing of defined areas within certain AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] facilities with elements of the US military on a rotational basis within parameters consistent with the Philippine Constitution and laws."

Tempering expectations of a rapid deployment of American troops on Philippine soil and naval assets in contested waters, Batino said that the ongoing negotiations were still "very fluid and we [Philippine government and their US counterparts] cannot have a definitive time line when we will finish this". US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg, meanwhile, has committed to "conclude the agreement as soon as we can", saying that both sides still need to work out "some details".

Stumbling blocks

The Philippine government's perceived ambivalence towards certain sovereignty-related details of the agreement has raised hackles in certain nationalistic quarters. A number of prominent legislators have voiced their concerns about the "legality" of the proposed pact given constitutional restrictions on the establishment of permanent foreign military bases on Philippine soil.

Aquino's administration has insisted that the pact under negotiation falls within already existing treaties between the Philippines and the US, specifically the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 1997 Visiting Forces Agreement, and thus there is no need for Senate ratification of the proposed AEDC. Leading legislators have countered that the proposed pact requires legislative oversight and separate approval to ensure it is consistent with Philippine laws and national interests.

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, one of the country's most respected public figures, has been a major critic of the proposed agreement, arguing that allowing foreign troops and hardware on Philippine soil "is a major subject in itself" which does "not [constitute] a minor case of detail" that supposedly falls under the provisions of prior bilateral treaties, as the Aquino administration has maintained.

News reports suggest that the US is also looking beyond an executive agreement, which Washington apparently fears could be reversed upon the expiration of Aquino's term and election of a new president in 2016. Local analysts contend that the next Philippine government, potentially headed by a pragmatist like incumbent Vice President Jejomar Binay, will look to recalibrate Manila's position vis-?-vis China to avoid conflict and maximize bilateral economic ties.

The Philippines and US have apparently yet to agree on exactly what kind of military hardware, surveillance equipment and naval assets will be shared with Filipino troops to defend Manila's claims in the South China Sea. Invoking the two sides' 1951 mutual defense treaty, Manila has sought concrete US military and strategic support to counter Chinese maritime assertiveness.

However, the Obama administration has so far been reluctant to become directly involved in a potential confrontation between the Philippines and China. Washington's priority has been to use diplomatic pressure and a larger strategic footprint in Asia to deter further Chinese territorial assertiveness, without necessarily risking a military conflict with China.

At the same time, the disputed region is becoming more militarized. During the recently-concluded National People's Congress meeting, China announced its plans to further accelerate its military spending (from 10.7% of gross domestic product in 2013 to 12.2% in 2014), with a special focus on enhancing the country's maritime power. The larger budget outlays come in light of intensifying territorial disputes in the Western Pacific and the US's policy to "pivot" 60% of its global naval assets to the Asia-Pacific by 2020.

Concerted effort

Against the backdrop of projected US military budget cuts, Katrina McFarland, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, recently said: "Right now, the [US pivot policy] is being looked at again because candidly it can't happen."

Aware of the US's fiscal woes and the Pentagon's struggle to build a "leaner but meaner" armed forces through greater use of technology, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, countries similarly locked in bitter territorial disputes with China, are stepping up their strategic cooperation.

Allies in the region are still confident that the US will remain as the primary naval power in the Pacific for decades to come, and that the Pentagon's budget woes will increasingly encourage a more efficient and innovative allocation of dwindling resources.

But there is also a creeping realization among US allies that enhanced self-reliance and intra-regional cooperation is crucial to shoring up their national defenses. Rather than advocating greater dependence on Washington, as the new pact with Manila seems to insinuate, the Obama administration has encouraged its regional allies to develop stronger military-to-military ties.

Japan is increasingly at the center of that China-containing strategic diversification. Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visited Japan earlier this month, following up Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Hanoi soon after assuming power in 2013. During Sang's visit, the two sides enhanced their existing strategic partnership to a so-called "Extensive Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia".

The new deal includes provisions for greater armed forces cooperation and allowances for more mutual visits of military ships. Japan also offered as part of the enhanced partnership to assist Hanoi in upgrading the capacity of its currently weak maritime law enforcement agencies.

Vietnam and the Philippines will be among the potential biggest beneficiaries of the Abe administration's attempts to revive Japan as a "normal power" (with offensive military capabilities) and rally the region to jointly counterbalance China under Abe's so-called "security diamond" concept.

In recent months, Japan has stepped up its military spending, implemented measures to better protect its maritime borders with China, and announced it would consider exporting advanced armaments to regional partners which could be deployed to assist in the protection of vital sea lanes in the Western Pacific.

Although Tokyo has not indicated what weapons it might provide, strategic analysts believe that regional allies desire access to Japan-manufactured Soryu-class submarines and multi-role response vessels to bolster their maritime defenses against China.

Vietnam has also stepped up its strategic engagement with the Philippines, as both sides explore institutionalized cooperation on the South China Sea disputes. In particular, the two sides have been coordinating their diplomatic position with respect to their disputes with China. Philippine officials hope that Vietnam and Japan will soon join Manila in legally challenging China's sweeping maritime claims at relevant international bodies.

It is increasingly clear that Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are strengthening their strategic cooperation while at the same time encouraging deeper American commitment to hedge against China's rising assertiveness in contested maritime areas. It is unclear, however, whether those efforts will pressure China to soften or harden its territorial claims and geopolitical ambitions.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.


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