Originally published at the Philippine Star on June 24, 2011
In an official meeting with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario on 23 June 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured that the US is committed to defend the Philippines amidst rising security tensions in the South China Sea, which the Philippine government now calls as West Philippine Sea.
To operationalize this commitment, Secretary Clinton stressed that the US would provide the Philippines affordable and reliable military equipment in order to enhance the external defense capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), particularly in defending its territories in West Philippines Sea. The AFP is now preparing a “shopping list” of military hardware it wants from the US.
So far, these words of Secretary Clinton are the most reassuring statements ever expressed by a top US official on the state of Philippines-American security relations.
Since 1951, the Philippines and the US have been military allies through the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). This placed the Philippines on the side of the US in the cold war against the former Soviet Union.
But their strong military relations became practically moribund with the termination in 1991 of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement (MBA). The termination of MBA coincided with end of the cold war between the US and the former Soviet Union. When the US withdrew its last remaining troops from Clark and Subic in 1992, their military relations reached its lowest moment leading to the rapid deterioration not only of Philippines-American alliance but also of Philippine military capabilities.
China took advantage of this moment when it passed a law in 1992 declaring the whole of South China Sea as part of its internal waters. US reaction was ambiguous and underscored that it would remain neutral on the Spratly issue.
However, Chinese occupation of the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1995 prompted the US and the Philippines to fashion a new type of military relationship in order to respond to a China challenge in the Spratlys. In 1999, the Philippine Senate ratified the Philippines-American Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to justify the presence of American troops conducting joint and combined military exercises with the AFP in Philippine territories. The VFA is said to have provided operational substance to the MDT, which serves as the cornerstone of Philippines-American security alliance.
Despite the signing of the VFA, the US maintained its “strategic ambiguities” on the Spratly issue and declared its “hands off” position on the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
While the VFA renewed Philippines-American security relations, it failed to actually revive their military alliance. The China challenge in the Panganiban Reef at that time was not enough justification for US troops to become visibly involved in Philippine security.
Things changed in 2001 when the US used the VFA to justify American presence in the Philippines as part of the global war on terrorism (GWOT).
The GWOT reinvigorated the once dormant Philippines-American alliance. The GWOT even led to the signing of the Mutual Logistic Support Agreement (MLSA) in 2002 and the establishment of US Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTFP) Headquarters in Zamboanga City thereafter. The threat of terrorism, therefore, encouraged the Philippines and the US to work closely together.
China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea is now being viewed in the Philippines and the US not only as a security challenge, but more of a military threat. This is the context on why Secretary Clinton strongly expressed US commitment to defend the Philippines amidst tensions in the Spratlys.
Secretary Clinton’s statement indicates the emerging cold war between the US and China in the Spratlys.
A cold war is a situation where at least two major powers are involved in a security tension and subdued military hostility short of an actual military battle. Conflicts are expressed through proxy wars, military coalitions, propaganda, espionage, and even trade competitions. This situation is now emerging between the US and China in the contested Spratly group of islands.
Indications of an emerging cold war in the Spratly started to manifest in March 2009 when five Chinese ships “harassed” USS Impeccable, a US Navy minesweeper. The Chinese government claimed that the US ship was intruding in China’s internal water, which was regarded by the US government as an international water where all ships can enjoy free or innocent passage.
The emerging cold war between the US and China on the Spratly issue is also manifested in the exchange of words between the two powers in various international forums like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Shangrila Dialogue, and various meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) involving the two powers.
The US exclaims that the US has a national security interest in the South China Sea. China, on the other hand, asserts that the South China Sea forms part of its core interests at par with Taiwan and Tibet. China, which says that it remains committed to the peaceful resolution of territorial conflicts, wants the US out of the South China Sea Disputes. But the US reiterates its willingness to get involved in the peaceful management of disputes in the Spratly while assuring its allies in the region of US military assistance.
The Philippines is now inevitably involved in an emerging cold war between the US and China in the Spratly. As an American ally, the Philippines is apparently on the side of the US in this emerging situation.
But will the Philippine government allows itself to get involved in a proxy war between the US and China when the cold war in the Spratly reaches its peak?
This situation is something that all sovereign states have to prevent to happen.