- - Friday, April 11, 2014

Dictatorial regimes are subjecting the democratic West to two spectacles of weakness: the seeming inability to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and to counter China’s aggression in the South China Sea. In both cases, a failure to respond will only invite a greater challenge and the specter of war.

While the Obama administration and our NATO allies are still struggling to begin to comprehend the stark reordering of national priorities and strategic relations with Russia required to deter Vladimir Putin’s ethno-imperialist ambitions, deterring China today may be as simple as giving a long-standing ally four helicopters.

If the United States is to be serious about deterring Mr. Putin, then it must place a far higher priority on funding sufficient U.S. force levels, especially nuclear force levels, while investing more vigorously in future military technologies. With the Cold War barely a generation past, it will not be too difficult for President Obama or his successor to justify such a shift in priorities.

However, no president has explained to the American people what is at stake in the South China Sea and why it is necessary to re-embrace an old ally, the Philippines, and provide real military assistance quickly. Mr. Obama will have this chance when he visits the Philippines later in April, but he should do so with added emphasis by bringing a low-cost but timely gift: four medium-size helicopters.

Since the 1980s, both Republican and Democratic administrations have professed their “neutrality” toward the myriad conflicting territorial and economic-zone claims to the South China Sea. It was refreshing last February when U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg publicly disavowed China’s vague “Nine Dash Line” with which it claims most of the South China Sea.

For more than a decade, China’s goal has been clear; namely, to control the South China Sea as a “lake” for its nuclear-missile submarines and future aircraft carrier battle groups. China took the Paracel Island group from South Vietnam in 1974, blasted Vietnamese troops off some of the Spratly Islands in 1988, occupied a Philippine-claimed reef 1995, chased the Philippines off Scarborough Shoal in 2013 and is now getting ready to force Philippine Marines off their outpost on Second Thomas Shoal.

In February and March, Chinese coast guard ships prevented Philippine ships from trying to resupply a small Philippine Marine contingent on a World War II vintage tank-landing ship deliberately beached on the shoal in 1999. In response, the Philippine navy is using its small, unarmed BN-2 Islander aircraft to drop supplies. Having flown in one of their BN-2s in 1995, I can attest they are mighty small for resisting a superpower. This is not quite a “Berlin Airlift,” but there is a high risk if Manila loses this improbable outpost.

Second Thomas Shoal is very close to Mischief Reef, occupied by China in early 1995, about 120 miles from the southern Philippine island of Palawan. This, and China’s current control over Scarborough Shoal near Northern Luzon, could result in Chinese military forces based at both ends of the Philippine Trench sea lane, vital to the economies of North and Southeast Asia.

Today, China is expanding its air base on Woody Island in the Paracel group, and there has been open Chinese discussion of building an air base on Mischief Reef. Failure to act will embolden China to build more bases, or even to consider punitive raids against the larger Philippine islands when it has sufficient forces toward the end of the decade.

A loss of Second Thomas Shoal would greatly diminish the Obama’s administration’s laudable continuation of a strategic re-embrace of the Philippines started by President George W. Bush. To be sure, it took the election of President Benigno Aquino III in 2010 to accelerate this strategic revival, which soon will include new agreements to allow expanded access for U.S. forces to Philippine bases.

For his part, Mr. Aquino has promoted positive economic growth that is enabling Manila to purchase significant air and naval equipment for the first time since the 1960s, which in Manila required great political heavy-lifting. Reviving strategic cooperation affirms Mr. Aquino’s leadership and also the value of a long-standing military alliance, but Washington can also be more proactive.

The Philippines lacks the medium and heavy-lift helicopters that could greatly ease the resupply of Second Thomas Shoal.

An immediate gift of four medium-size helicopters would help ensure the weekly resupply of the Philippine marines and demonstrate the kind of resolve needed now to help deter greater Chinese aggression in the future. Neutrality no longer serves U.S. strategic interests; it must now actively oppose China’s intent to impose control over the South China Sea.

Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.