NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The U.S. military should consider offering new security guarantees to the Philippines similar to those promised to Japan in response to any military attacks by China in maritime disputes in Asia, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said this week.
The idea behind the new guarantee would be to dissuade China from attacking a Philippines military outpost in the disputed Spratly Islands chain.
The declaration would be similar to U.S. military guarantees provided to Japan in the East China Sea over the past several years. Senior Obama administration officials have made several high-profile statements in recent years declaring that any attack on Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which China also claims as its territory, would prompt a U.S. military response.
The new declaration could be made under the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty and would signal a shift in the current U.S. policy of declaring Washington does not take sides in the South China Sea maritime disputes.
The issue came up Tuesday during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing led by Sen. John McCain with Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Mr. McCain said he is concerned China may seek to expel the Philippines from Second Thomas Shoal, or build new infrastructure on nearby Scarborough Shoal. “Given this, we should consider clarifying how the United States will respond to an attack on the territory or armed forces of the Philippines under the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty,” the Arizona Republican said.
Asked about providing a direct U.S. military guarantee to the Philippines to protect the Spratlys, Adm. Harris said: “I think we should consider it, and we should have a discussion of it in the policy arena.”
“Our obligations under the treaty with the Philippines [are] pretty clear, and whether we extend that to Second Thomas Shoal, which we don’t hold is Philippine sovereign territory because we don’t have a position on sovereignty, we should have that discussion, I believe,” Adm. Harris said.
About a dozen Philippines Marines currently are stationed on Second Thomas Shoal aboard a 330-foot-long, U.S.-built tank landing ship that was deliberately run aground there in 1999 to counter Chinese activities on nearby Mischief Reef.
China has demanded the vessel be removed and threatened unspecified “further measures” against the ship after supplies were sent to the ship last summer.
Sen. Tom Cotton said he supports the idea of a new guarantee. “I think deterrence works best when deterrence is clear, as with relationships that we have with NATO and Taiwan,” the Arkansas Republican said.
Philippines is a leading challenger to Chinese encroachment in the Spratlys and fears China’s growing militarization on the newly created islands that are located fewer than 100 miles from the Philippines’ main islands.
Manila recently gave final approval for an enhanced defense cooperation agreement with the Obama administration that will pave the way for a much larger U.S. military presence and greater military cooperation.
Defense officials said the new guarantee has been discussed internally at Pacific Command and the Pentagon. A U.S. declaration that an attack on any Philippines’ facilities in the Spratlys will prompt a U.S. military response would be designed to deter growing Chinese military aggression in the region.
The idea was outlined publicly in a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in August.
The report recommends that Washington consider “offering an explicit guarantee that it will respond under the framework of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty to an attack on Philippine troops, ships or planes in disputed waters or features in the South China Sea.”
The guarantee does not need to be the same as the one for Japan’s Senkakus. But it would include a public clarification that disputed waters and features in the South China Sea fall under the defense treaty’s Article V. The provision commits the United States to respond to any attack on Philippines armed forces, vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.
The declaration would give “an enormous boost” to U.S. ties with Manila and eliminate doubts in the Philippines on whether the United States is a reliable ally, the report said.
Scaparrotti headed to Europe
Defense officials tell Inside the Ring that Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, is the leading candidate to become the NATO alliance’s next Supreme Allied Commander Europe and U.S. European Command chief.
Gen. Scaparrotti has received wide praise within military and government circles for his role in maintaining U.S. forces’ readiness on the volatile Korean Peninsula at a time of sharp budget cutbacks under President Obama.
The four-star Army general would replace the current NATO commander, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who has been EUCOM commander and NATO chief since May 2013 and is expected to retire this year.
The likely replacement for Gen. Scaparrotti is said to be Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, currently head of U.S. Army Forces Pacific.
The military’s Korean command by tradition usually is held by an Army general, while the larger U.S. Pacific Command above the command normally is led by an admiral.
The shift of Gen. Scaparrotti from Asia to Europe is said to be based in part on growing Pentagon concerns over Russian military actions and threats. A general who specializes in ground warfare is viewed as better suited to dealing with the Russian threats to NATO allies in Eastern Europe.
A spokesman for Gen. Scaparrotti declined to comment.
Meanwhile, President Obama, as part of his drive for greater diversity and social engineering in the military, is said to be planning to name the first woman commander to lead one of the military’s nine unified commands before he ends his presidency.
Defense sources familiar with internal discussions say the next head of the U.S. Northern Command, based in Colorado, is likely to be one of two senior female officers.
The two candidates for the NORTHCOM post are Adm. Michelle Howard, currently vice chief of naval operations, and Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson, currently commander of Pacific Air Forces and air component commander at the Hawaii-based Pacific Command. Gen. Robinson also has been mentioned as the next Air Force chief of staff.
Current NORTHCOM commander Adm. Bill Gortney has been in charge of the Colorado Springs command, which oversees North American defenses and homeland military defense, since December 2014. Most unified command chiefs hold the position for two to four years.
Cyberwarriors deployed to Pacific
Both the U.S. Pacific Command and its subunit, U.S. Forces Korea, have created special cyberwarfare units to wage digital attacks during future conflicts.
Adm. Harry Harris, Pacific Command chief, told a Senate hearing Tuesday that a new CyberPAC is the command’s cyberwarfare group.
“Cyber is the new frontier. It’s the new threat vector. We are expending enormous resources across the department in getting after cyber,” Adm. Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
CyberPAC’s mission is to conduct cyberattacks in wartime and to protect what the Pentagon calls the DoDIN, for Department of Defense Information Network, the global information system that can be used for everything from shooting down missiles to delivering supplies. The DoDIN is known to be a major target of adversaries like China and Russia, who plan to disrupt or destroy vital U.S. communications and other network links in a conflict.
A Russian intelligence-gathering ship was tracked as it sought to map out the DoDIN in the Atlantic last year.
“I have assigned to me at PACOM cybermission teams, and we’re learning how to use those teams,” Adm. Harris said. “Again, this is new, but it’s a very real threat not only to U.S. military forces but to America in general, in my opinion.”
Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, also has a new cyberwarfare team attached to his command to deal with the growing threat of North Korean cyberattacks.
“This is a domain that we’re learning that’s very challenging and in particular in the [Korean] Peninsula, because North Korea also has a very deliberate goal of increasing their cybercapability,” Gen. Scaparrotti said, citing the hack on Sony, as well as cyberattacks on South Korea’s banking and media sectors in 2013.
“It’s a great concern to me,” he said.
— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.