America is dusting off a military alliance with the Philippines that languished in the back of the closet for decades. You can practically hear them at the Pentagon trying it on for size: Hey, how’d we ever forget about this great thing?
A glance at a map of Asia, and recent headlines, shows why the U.S.-Philippines partnership is in style again: The archipelago nation borders the South China Sea. That’s where China is in the midst of an audacious power grab that must be challenged before it’s a fait accompli, or escalates into a military confrontation.
Dotting the middle of the South China Sea is a series of rocks, reefs and islets known as the Spratly Islands. China is using sand dredgers there to create artificial islands in order to boost its territorial claims on nearly all of the South China Sea. Three of those man-made islands now have Chinese military airfields, at least two of which are complete. The area is patrolled by the Chinese navy, which tries to shoo away any ship or plane that encroaches. The Chinese gambit is clever, but it’s a violation of U.N. convention: You cannot manufacture sovereign territory in international waters.
A handful of rival governments — Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — also make claims on the Spratlys. Some of the land masses are occupied, but only China is building islands, claiming the near entirety of the South China Sea — and attempting to enforce its claims with a robust military presence. The Philippines is challenging China’s assertions at the United Nations.
The United States’ interest in the Spratlys isn’t over ownership of bits of sand and rock but in protecting freedom of navigation on the high seas, and putting a check on China’s ability to carve up the Pacific. The U.S. military cannot stand by and watch as China attempts to seize control of one of the world’s busiest open waterways.
Twice in the past year, U.S. ships have glided past the Chinese-controlled Spratlys to send the message that fake islands get no ownership recognition. Only naturally formed islands have territorial control for a radius of 12 miles.
The U.S. approach has been cautious. Too cautious, because so far it’s unheeded by China.
Which brings us (back) to the Philippines: Ties to the U.S. date to American colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century. In March 1942, at the outset of World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur narrowly escaped from the Philippines during the Japanese invasion, promising, “I shall return.” He did, too.
After the war, the U.S. maintained a strong military presence in the independent Philippines, including Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Station, both crucial to the U.S. during the Vietnam era. After the Soviet Union collapsed, there were no obvious threats in the Pacific to counter. Not from Russia, China or North Korea. The Philippines decided it was time for the U.S. to pack up and leave. Who knew what was coming?
Things might look different in the Spratlys if Clark and Subic were still operating. The U.S. has a tight military alliance with the Philippines, just not on the old scale. Now we’re looking at a revivified partnership. Call it: “I shall return. Again.”
Under a new pact, the U.S. will build facilities at five Philippine military bases, boosting radar and runway capacities. American troops will rotate through. One of the bases is on Palawan, an island just 100 miles from the Spratlys. The U.S. presence likely will expand over time.
At the same time, the U.S. and India also are deepening military ties. The Philippines and Vietnam are doing the same with each other. Japan is upping its game, too, reinterpreting its peace constitution to allow its self-defense forces to actively cooperate with the U.S. on collective defense. Read: It will now be possible for Japan to sail and fly with the U.S. to counter North Korean craziness and Chinese assertiveness, including, perhaps, joint patrols in the South China Sea.
This is not about bringing heat to provoke danger. It’s the opposite. The more America’s allies collaborate with the U.S. to keep the peace, the clearer the signal to China and North Korea that provocations won’t be tolerated. Ultimately, competing claims in the South China Sea have to be negotiated. But the crucial task is assuring that international waters are never usurped by any nation. Fake islands require a real response.