“Another day, another obscure controversy on the other side of the world.” This is how many Americans view international politics, and who can blame them? Prices are up nearly 16 percent since President Joe Biden took office. For the average household, this means finding an extra $900 every month to maintain their standard of living. And that is to say nothing of the drugs, suicide, and violent crime invading countless communities.
In other words, Americans have enough to deal with in their own backyards, which makes it difficult to focus on the growing threats from our adversaries abroad––especially when none of today’s major armed conflicts comes within a thousand miles of our continental borders.
But this doesn’t mean America’s economic and national security interests are not put at risk by what happens an ocean away. The Chinese Communist Party has spent the last two decades stealing American jobs and technology. In recent years, it has allowed Chinese drug traffickers to flood our cities with fentanyl. Now, Beijing is looking to hijack important trade routes and seize natural resources. This is a genuine conflict, even if it is not armed––and it is one with serious implications for the United States.
While much of the mainstream China coverage focuses on the potential for war over Taiwan, and understandably so, the Philippines may actually be the next flashpoint. This is why, to his credit, Biden declared an “ironclad … commitment to the defense of the Philippines, including the South China Sea,” earlier this year.
In this case, the word “commitment” refers to a seventy-year-old defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines. This treaty remains important and relevant to this day. But a simple reference to it is hardly a compelling case for why Americans should care about the Philippines. Our leaders have an obligation to explain in greater detail to taxpayers—and service members—why these islands matter to the United States. Here is my best attempt at such an explanation.
At the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy began guaranteeing free maritime trade around the world. This benefited friendly countries that lacked strong navies of their own, but it also benefited Americans. Our robust military presence secured export routes, ensured our access to critical raw materials, and strengthened the global alliance against communism that threatened our national security. Taken together, these benefits ushered in an era of global prosperity and growth that made America the envy of the world.
Unfortunately, this era is drawing to a close. In large part, this is because our elected leaders made the incredibly naïve decision to open our economy to China in 1999. President Bill Clinton promised the new arrangement would not “transfer valuable technology” and insisted that we would “be able to export products without exporting jobs.” Clinton also reduced our military presence in Asia. This set the stage for two decades of exploitation.
By 2010, China had stolen huge quantities of industrial capacity and intellectual property from America to fuel its rise. Meanwhile, Beijing had begun to claim vast sections of the South China Sea, which is bordered by China and the Philippines, as well as Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. This territory is strategically located and resource-rich. It boasts rare earth minerals, 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 10 percent of the world’s fish catch, and $3 billion in annual ship-borne trade.
In 2016, the United Nations rejected China’s claim to the Philippines’ historically recognized territory in the South China Sea. But Beijing refuses to accept that ruling. Chinese ships, many of which have support from either the Chinese Coast Guard, the Chinese Maritime Militia, or the People’s Liberation Army Navy, are currently harassing Filipinos in their own territory to bully them into accepting Beijing’s decree, rather than international law.
This year, the Philippines’ president appointed a new military chief who pledged to protect the nation’s sovereignty “at all costs.” It’s an understandable reaction to what many Filipinos view as an existential threat. But Americans should also be concerned with Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
Simply put, we don’t want a totalitarian regime that hates the United States to gain exclusive access to huge stores of rare earth minerals, energy, seafood, and trade in Asia. In addition, we don’t want to lose access to the Philippines, which plays a crucial role in the international economy. These islands host the world’s largest digital signal processing chips factory. They are also among the world’s greatest producers of cobalt and nickel, critical minerals for twenty-first-century supply chains. Our ability to maintain great power status would be severely diminished were they to fall under communist control.
Thankfully, there is no need for the Philippines to stand against China alone. Other Indo-Pacific nations also suffer from Beijing’s bullying, and if they band together, the Communist Party may become convinced that the costs of its power grab exceed its potential benefits. Chinese strategists have favored a strategy of “letting barbarians subdue other barbarians” for centuries. They are less eager to fight a united front.
A united front in the Indo-Pacific, however, will not coalesce without firm U.S. support. We should provide that support, not because we want to get mixed up in far-flung controversies, but because deterring Beijing is the best way to keep this far-flung controversy from impacting our way of life.
If there is even a hint that the United States will not honor its security commitments to the Philippines or other treaty allies in Asia, it will encourage Beijing to engage in more hostilities to test our resolve. Americans have enough to worry about already. Adding the breakdown of the post-World War II order in Asia to their plates would mean an awful lot to swallow.
Marco Rubio is the senior U.S. senator from Florida. He is also the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.