The dramatic come-from-behind election of Benigno (Noynoy) S. Aquino III as president of the Philippines breathes new life into Philippine democracy. It signals a return of “people power,” which was the hallmark of Mr. Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, who succeeded the Marcos regime as president in 1986. The corruption of Noynoy’s predecessor, the regime of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was well-known. The regime provided unfettered access to China, which then poured billions of dollars into the Philippines to further its own objectives.
The Arroyo regime signed more than 65 bilateral agreements with China. One of them involved the Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) in 2004 for oil exploration in the South China Sea, which has been shrouded in controversy, as it may have conceded territorial waters to China. For years, China has been making illegal claims to and occupying various contested islands in the South China Sea. After U.S. forces left the Philippines in 1991, one of the first things China did was to have its National People’s Congress pass a law unilaterally declaring sovereignty over various disputed islands in South China Sea, after which it started building an air and naval base on Woody Island in the Paracel Island chain and new facilities on its outposts in the Spratly Island chain.
Then in 1995, China built a facility on the Philippines‘ Mischief Reef, which is clearly recognized to be in the Philippine economic zone. The Clinton administration failed to respond in any meaningful manner. Since then, China claims the entire South China Sea as part of its historic waters, i.e., its exclusive economic zone, and this year China added it to its “core interests,” ranking it with Taiwan and Tibet for sensitivity.
In June 2009, a retired People’s LIberation Army deputy chief of the general staff called for the construction of a formal air and naval base on Mischief Reef. Such a base would allow the PLA to place naval, air and missile forces astride the Palawan Strait, one of the key strategic sea lanes in the Western Pacific, posing a military threat to the Philippines and to the economies of U.S. allies Japan and South Korea.
China also has taken aggressive action against internationally recognized routine naval and hydrographic operations as well as commercial oil- and gas-exploration ventures in the South China Sea. What’s driving China’s illegal actions is very clear. On Hainan Island it has built a new, large naval base with underground submarine pens, which can support both strategic and nuclear-attack submarines.
China apparently would like to establish secure “bastions” in the South China Sea to ensure the survivability of its strategic second-strike force regardless of the fact that this sea area is a recognized international waterway. For the past 15 years, our policy on this issue has been adrift. The United States has failed to confront China over its illegal actions in any meaningful way.
However, at a late July meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held in Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled a change in the U.S. position by directly confronting China, stating that the conflicting claims over the contested South China Sea areas should be resolved through regional discussions and solutions. This contradicted China’s preference for bilateral negotiations with each individual ASEAN nation. China’s foreign minister considered this statement a direct challenge and accused the United States of an attack on its claims.
To counter China’s aggressive action in the South China Sea, the United States has been expanding its relationships with Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact, the U.S. and China are now in a strategic competition to build military ties with Indonesia. China has been making inroads with all ASEAN members as part of its effort to diminish U.S. power and influence. Its goal is clear: to become the dominant power in the Western Pacific and force our allies to sever their relationship with the United States.
Now that the Obama administration has made a direct challenge to China’s illegal activities in Southeast Asia, the United States needs to take concrete action. Fortunately, we are not without options. Aside from expanding our relations with ASEAN nations, we should start by building on our Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. Currently, we provide advisers and training assistance to the Philippines armed forces to counter their 20-year old insurgency.
As treaty allies, the U.S. has a direct interest in Manila having the wherewithal to defend its sovereign territory, which it cannot do today. To correct this unsatisfactory situation, we should do the following:
c Conduct a joint assessment with the Philippine armed forces to identify their immediate defense requirements and what they can afford and maintain.
c Consider leasing a squadron of F-16 fighter aircraft along with T-38 supersonic trainers. Consideration also should be given to leasing C-12 twin-engine aircraft outfitted for maritime patrol and counterinsurgency surveillance. Helicopters also should be part of the package.
c Consider leasing two FFG-7 guided-missile frigates to provide a recognized capability to enforce the Philippines‘ offshore territorial claims.
c The U.S. should negotiate a commercial agreement for access to logistic support facilities in Subic Bay.
The new Philippine president will come under intense pressure from China to prevent any expansion of U.S. activities. However, neither we nor the new Philippine government should be deterred by Chinese bluster from doing what is right.