China’s assertive behavior is breathing life into America’s historically tumultuous relationship with the Philippines.
With Washington turning its attention more to the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. and the Philippines last week held the first joint meeting of their top diplomats and defense chiefs. The U.S. increased military aid and resolved to help its ally on maritime security.
The steps came with the Philippines locked in a standoff with China over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea that has stoked passions on both sides. The U.S. is a walking a delicate diplomatic line. It doesn’t want the dispute to escalate, but it is showing where its strategic interests lie.
The relationship between the U.S. and its former colony thrived during the Cold War but ebbed after nationalist political forces prompted the closure of American military bases in 1992. As the U.S. seeks to build a stronger presence in Southeast Asia, a region it neglected during the past decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the alliance is assuming growing importance.
For its part, the Philippines is looking to Washington and its allies to help equip and train the nation’s bedraggled military, to put up a show of resistance to Chinese vessels that frequently sail into waters Manila considers to lie within its exclusive economic zone.
Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is very important for the U.S. to solidify its ties with its traditional allies in the region.
“The relationship with the Philippines went south when the U.S. lost Subic Bay [Naval Base] and Clark [Air Base],” he said. “The hangover is wearing off and interests are aligning again.”
But for both sides, managing the new chapter in their alliance is something of a balancing act and carries its own risks.
Nationalist sentiments still make an increased American military presence in the Philippines a sensitive issue, and its law forbids a foreign base on its soil. Like other Southeast Asian nations, the Philippines does not want to alienate the region’s economic powerhouse, with which it aims to have $60 billion in two-way trade by 2016.
And the U.S. also still needs to get along with China to prevent their strategic rivalry from spiraling into confrontation.
The 60-year-old mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines has the potential to put Washington in hot water in standoffs like the one playing out at the Scarborough Shoal, where Philippine and Chinese vessels have been facing off since April 10. Manila appears adamant that the U.S. would be duty-bound to come to the Philippines’ assistance should a conflict break out, but the U.S. has hedged on the issue.
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