Will America Go to War for the Philippines?

The U.S. military is back in the Philippines—but the dispute with China over islands remains.

Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsmen, once famously said: “Where the enemy advances, we retreat. Where the enemy retreats, we pursue.” In places like the Middle East, where the United States is perceived to be engaged in a gradual strategic retreat, China is on the offensive. The Asian powerhouse has been reaching out to key American allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. as well as to post-sanctions Iran, which is expected to play an even more consequential role in creating a post-American order in the region.

Iran is soon expected to join the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is largely seen as the emerging rival to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. And Iran, straddling the Eurasian landmass and rimland, will be very much at the center of China’s New Silk Road initiative. Across the continental Islamic sphere, stretching from Central Asia to Turkey, China has been engaged in a "Marching West" strategy aimed at increasing its footprint on the ruins of Russian and Western botched military interventions.

Leveraging its massive capital and technology, China has been wooing both disgruntled American allies and empowered U.S. adversaries. For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tehran earlier this week.

China’s strategy in the Middle East is not only about infrastructure, oil, exports, and (in light of the rise of ISIS and its implications for Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang) counter-terrorism. But as Wang Jisi—a leading Chinese strategist at Peking University—argued: it is also about countering—à la Mao’s dictum—America’s Pivot to Asia strategy, which is aimed at constraining Beijing’s territorial assertiveness in the East Asian seascape. As America pushes back against China in East Asia, the latter hopes to chip away at Western influence in West Asia.

Though there is certainly an emerging Sino-American “Great Game” across the Eurasian landmass, Beijing’s strategic priority remains in its own backyard, particularly the East and South China Seas, which it views as its national “blue soil.” Underlining its determination to consolidate its claims in adjacent waters, China kicked off the year with a bang by conducting multiple test flights to the newly-furbish airstrip on Fiery Cross in the South China Sea. This was followed by reports of China’s decision to (once again) deploy its giant oil platform, Haiyang Shiyou 981, to Vietnamese-claimed waters, just as Hanoi grapples with what looks like a testy political transition.

America, however, received a major strategic boost when the Philippine Supreme Court cleared the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The new security pact allows America to gain access to premiere Philippine military bases and facilities, including those that embrace the South China Sea. Pentagon’s soon-to-be-augmented military footprint in the area, however, runs the risk of being too provocative to China, heightening regional tensions, but also too little to fully rein in Chinese ambitions.  


Twenty-First Century Bases

Signed shortly after President Obama’s visit to Manila in mid-2014, the EDCA immediately faced a backlash in the Philippine Senate, which insisted that the new pact is a treaty that demands ratification. The case was eventually dragged to the Philippine Supreme Court, which after almost a year of deliberations ruled that the EDCA is an executive agreement that falls within the prerogative of the Benigno Aquino administration. The Philippines’s deteriorating position in the South China Sea, especially in light of China’s expanding footprint in the Spratly chain of islands, was clearly at the center of the high court’s favorable verdict.