In February 2023, the United States and the Philippines reached a level of military cooperation not seen in nearly three decades. Following the signing of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, the US now has access to four new military bases, bringing the total number to nine. In April 2023, the Philippine Armed Forces (AFP) and the US Navy will conduct its biggest joint military exercises in decades: according to Philippine officials, nearly 12,000 US and 5,000 Philippine servicemen will participate in the so-called “balikatan” exercises, meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder”. However, it is pertinent to note that diplomatic relations weren’t always this warm and rosy. In 1991, the American Bases Agreement was not renewed by the Philippine Congress, thus marking the end of decades of permanent American presence in the country. Moreover, between 2016 and 2022 Manila sharply pivoted towards Beijing under the administration of the former President Duterte. Today, it seems the proverbial Uncle Sam is triumphantly back in the Philippine islands, and in the greater Indo-Pacific region as well.
A Reckoning with a New Power
For many decades, the US political, military, and diplomatic establishments were preoccupied with its ventures in the Middle East: the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from 2001-2021, and the 2003 Iraq invasion — framed in the context of securing US national and security interests abroad. Meanwhile, China’s spectacular economic rise provided itself with the resources and influence it needed to become a global power. Under President Obama, Washington finally realized that the bigger challenge is in the Far East, not the Middle East. The much-discussed “pivot to Asia” refers to the US policy to devote more of attention to East Asia, which has now been integrated into the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Central to this strategy is balancing against China’s growing influence and assertiveness in the region, most exemplified in its growing military and naval capabilities.
In a span of only two decades, China has built up a large and modern military, which also features a formidable blue-water navy that is nearly a competitor of the US Navy according to some metrics. This ability to project power in the seas emboldened China to claim nearly 90% of the South China Sea (SCS). Despite protests from its neighbors, China has now fully militarized three artificially-reclaimed islands near the Philippines. Today, these islands in the SCS host a growing number of military installations and infrastructure, including runways, fighter jets, missile arsenals, ports, radar systems, and more. From Washington’s point of view, these de-facto Chinese bases threaten the well-established principle of the freedom of the high seas and innocent passage, and indeed jeopardize the overall regional security and stability. The SCS is a vital route for seaborne trade (roughly a third of global shipping transits here) bound to and
from the US, its allies Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and indeed China itself. Economic considerations aside, China’s control over the SCS and the “first island chain” — the trail of islands from the Japanese archipelago, to Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo marking the first line of defense of China — might compromise the ability of the US to defend Taiwan and its allies in case of a conflict with China. The SCS is now at risk of becoming a “Chinese lake”.
Racing to Rearmament
Within this context, the countries in the region are working towards boosting their security. Japan, breaking away from its post-WW2 pacifist tradition, increased significantly its defense spending in 2023 by 26% to $51 billion, specifically committing to acquire offensive counter-strike missile capabilities. Moreover, Japan and the Philippines, both US treaty-allies, signed a new bilateral defense agreement which allows Japan to send troops for humanitarian missions and disaster response in the Philippines, seen by both Tokyo and Manila as a stepping stone towards future joint military exercises and wider defense cooperation. Meanwhile, the recently signed AUKUS deal between the US, UK, and Australia provides for various defense arrangements, including the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. The reaction from China was curt but ominous: the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin warned in a statement that AUKUS is “walking further and further down the path of error and danger”. President Xi Jinping, in his first address to the National People’s Congress since being confirmed for an unprecedented third presidential term, vowed that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be reinforced and built into a “great wall of steel”. Unsurprisingly, in late 2022 Taiwan closed a $1.1 billion arms deal with the US, granting it access to advanced US-made missiles and air defense systems. Singapore, for its part, renewed in 2019 the Military Facilities Agreement with the US, dating back to 1990, while India has significantly deepened defense ties with the US, receiving training, trade-restricted advanced technologies, capacity-building financing, and critical intelligence from the US. Lastly, Thailand, a US treaty ally since 1954, holds Cobra Gold with American forces every year, the region’s largest and longest running multinational military exercise.
All of these developments are taking place in an already tense regional environment. Chinese warplanes cross into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on an almost daily basis, Chinese vessels sail near Japan’s Senkaku islands which China claims as its own, PLA combat aircraft routinely fly past US planes in the South China Sea, North Korea is conducting more missile tests than ever (including inter-continental ballistic missiles), and the Chinese coast guard continues to intimidate passing Philippine vessels within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone — the region could very well be one mistake or collision away from descending into a conflict.
Red Lines in the Indo-Pacific
Beijing has valid reasons to think that the US and its closest regional partners are pursuing a policy of “containment” towards China. In truth, the region is dotted with US allies that are all beefing up their respective capabilities and cooperation with Washington. However, China’s predicament is also partly of its own doing — its aggressive rhetoric and bold display of capabilities are driving the region’s major players into militarizing in an attempt to reinforce their self-defense capabilities. The US, for its part, is determined to uphold the longstanding norm of freedom of navigation in the SCS, both for its own and its allies’ interest. Lastly, resolving the Taiwan question is one of the most precarious geopolitical issues between the two superpowers, with China designating Taiwan as one of its non-negotiable “red lines” and the US increasingly consolidating its own resolve to defend the self-ruling island nation. The Taiwan question will probably constitute the defining moment for the future of the region.
Taking stock of his country’s journey from defeat to global power status, President Xi, in the same NPC speech above, declared: “The Chinese people have become the masters of their own destiny. […] The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered an irreversible historical process.” But whether China can finally end its “century of humiliation” through a victorious reunification with Taiwan, or end up in another century of defeat, will be determined in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.
Written by Shaira Rabi; Edited by Peter Janiš
Photo credit to: Midjourney