Defending Japan and the Philippines Is Not Entrapment

The United States has a strong interest in standing with its allies against Chinese expansionism.

In August 2013, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared while in Manila that the US-Philippines alliance is “an anchor for peace and stability” in the region. In October of the same year, US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized in Tokyo that the “US-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in Asia Pacific.” Notwithstanding these bold pronouncements from high-ranking US officials, some in America have expressed concerns over the possibility of entrapment in case the two US allies’ separate disputes with China turn violent. Some are concerned that Washington could get dragged into a war with China over tiny islands that the US has no national interest in. Others argue that Washington’s long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity should be applied on the East and South China Seas in order to deter the Chinese from changing the relevant status quos, and the Japanese and the Filipinos from getting too emboldened. These beg two important questions. First, will militarily defending Japan and the Philippines over their disputes with China really mean entrapment of the US? Second, will ambiguity in American security commitments to Tokyo and Manila result in an outcome in favor of peace and stability?

Regarding the first question, it is important to dissect what the East and South China Sea disputes involve.

On the East China Sea dispute, it must be noted that it was only in 2008 when China started to send civilian law-enforcement vessels to the territorial waters of the islands in contention. In retrospect, this was the start of Beijing’s attempt to revise the status quo of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Over the years, the frequency of incursions increased dramatically. Recently, such attempt to alter the status quo was extended to the relevant airspace with China sending paramilitary aircraft and declaring an air-defense identification zone. In 2010, Beijing used economic coercion to prevent Tokyo from sentencing a Chinese fishing trawler captain who deliberately rammed his ship into Japanese Coast Guard vessels. Furthermore, the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute involves maritime boundary questions. This is significant because the East China Sea is an important sea lane, where energy and trade for South Korea and Japan pass through. It is also a strategic common that is the gateway to mainland East Asia and an immediate connection to the South China Sea, a very important choke point.

On China’s dispute with the Philippines, it must be noted that Beijing’s ambiguous “nine-dash line” claim effectively turns much of the South China Sea, including areas long considered part of the global commons, as China’s own territorial waters. Given that $5.3 trillion worth of trade passes through the South China Sea every year, $1.2 trillion of which is US trade, the significance of the dispute between Manila and Beijing cannot be underestimated.

Beijing has been using coercion and intimidation to change the status quo of the islands and maritime domains in the South China Sea. In 1995, Chinese forces occupied and built a garrison on the Mischief Reef, a submerged maritime feature located 129 nautical miles west of a major Philippine landmass and 599 nautical miles southeast of Hainan, the nearest Chinese landmass. Under customary international law and its codified version, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), submerged maritime features cannot be claimed by any state as a territory under its sovereignty. Hence, their control is dependent on whichever exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf they are located. Moreover, in 2012, China also successfully flipped the status quo of the Scarborough Shoal, another maritime feature within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, after a tense standoff. Quite recently, China has been attempting to eject Manila’s military presence in the Second Thomas Shoal, another submerged maritime feature within the Philippines’ UNCLOS-mandated continental shelf. In March 2014, China twice implemented a blockade which tried to prevent the Philippine military from provisioning and rotating its troops in the shoal. Months prior to those incidents, China has been sending naval frigates and civilian maritime law enforcement vessels to contested waters in an apparent attempt to intimidate the Philippine government.

All of these reveal two issues. First, the disputes in the East and South China Seas involve a rising revisionist power trying to alter the status quo, not by the rule of law or peaceful, nonhostile means, but by intimidation and coercion. Second, the disputes involve not just the islands themselves, but maritime domains critical for the control of valuable trade routes and strategic commons.

What then do these two issues mean for the United States? They mean that militarily defending Japan and the Philippines is not simply giving a favor to longstanding allies. It’s not entrapment. Clearly committing to their defense means defending two important US national interests: 1) the rule of law, and 2) securing freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce in very strategic trade routes and critical choke points. These two alone are enough justifications for Washington to clearly stand by with its two Pacific allies.