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.
Unlike the Cold War days, the Philippines won’t receive billions of dollars for renting out its bases to America. In fact, the host country will shoulder transportation and utility costs of the visiting U.S. forces. America, however, will gain negotiated, rotational decade-long access to the Philippines’s most important military facilities, including those in Subic and Clark—the site of America’s biggest overseas bases during the Cold War—as well as Oyster Bay in Palawan, all of which are near disputed waters in the South China Sea. This allows the U.S. Navy to more quickly and effectively respond to any contingency in the increasingly volatile region, which could very well end up as Asia’s new battlefield. Arguably, the EDCA represented a critical component in the operationalization of the military dimension of America’s pivot to the region.
In the Philippines, proponents of the deal have described EDCA as an urgently-needed initiative to upgrade the country’s bilateral alliance with the United States. After all, the new pact, which builds on the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, facilitates the expansion of joint military exercises and enhances interoperability among their armed forces. To accommodate America’s massive military platforms, Manila expects Washington to upgrade the facilities as well as the surrounding infrastructure of designated Philippine bases. The two allies are also contemplating the prospects of joint patrols close to South China Sea land features occupied by China.
Down the road, Manila hopes that America will increase its paltry military aid to its Southeast Asian ally, which is caught in a bitter maritime dispute with the Chinese juggernaut. For example, a country like Egypt receives up to $1.3 billion in annual military aid, while the Philippines, a vibrant democracy and a former colony that has fought shoulder-to-shoulder with America throughout twentieth century conflicts, has had to settle for $40 million. The Middle East’s most powerful military, Israel, is seeking $5 billion in annual aid in compensation for its cooperation during the negotiation and implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal. Simply put, there is a lot of room for improvement as far as Philippine-U.S. security relations are concerned.
China wasted no time in lashing out at the newly-approved agreement between the Philippines and America. The Xinhua News Agency, China’s leading state-owned portal, accused Manila of "turning to Uncle Sam to back its ambition to counter China," warning that the Philippines will "bear the negative consequences of its stupid move [author’s own emphasis] in the future". It prodded the Philippines to instead solve "disputes with China through negotiations without seeking help from a third party." Zhu Feng, an expert at Nanjing University, warned that the implementation of EDCA will make the disputed theatre “more crowded, and the risk for a military conflict will continue to rise."
Tyranny of Uncertainty
There is, however, nothing in EDCA that commits America to come to the Philippines’s aid in the event of a conflict between Manila and Beijing over disputed features. The Obama administration continues to equivocate on the question of whether the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (see articles 4 and 5) covers Philippine-claimed land features in the South China Sea. For decades, America has wavered on this specific issue.
Back in the 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in a diplomatic cable, made it clear that “there are substantial doubts that [Philippine] military contingent on island in the Spratly group would come within protection of (MDT),” instead only offering “helpful political actions” in an event of conflict between the Philippines and a third party. In absence of a legal and diplomatic settlement of these disputes, Kissinger clarified that “[we] do not see legal basis at this time, however, for supporting the claim to Spratlys of one country over that of other claimants.”
For top officials like Kissinger, America’s limited commitment was due to the fact that the signing of the MDT preceded the Philippines’s effective occupation of features such as Thitu (Pag-Asa) Island, plus there was a necessity to ensure that bilateral security obligations would not be exploited as a carte blanche for Philippine territorial adventurism. As Kissinger argued, in absence of international settlement, what matters is “[c]ontinuous, effective, and unconstested occupation and administration of territory”, but “[Philippine] occupation could hardly be termed uncontested in face of claims and protests of Chinese and Vietnamese.”
America, however, did express, albeit with certain caveats, its commitment to come to the rescue of the Philippines if the latter’s vessels and troops come under attack in the Pacific theatre—but not necessarily if it involves a military showdown over contested land features. Kissinger made it clear that the “MDT may apply in event of attack on [Philippine] forces deployed to third countries, which. . . is fundamentally different from case where deployment is for purpose of enlarging Philippine territory.”
This is precisely why the United States chose to encourage the Philippines to find a diplomatic compromise when China wrested control of Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef (1994) and Scarborough Shoal (2012). Nonetheless, in Manila’s calculation, America’s augmented military presence on its soil will serve as a ‘latent deterrence’ against further Chinese revanchism with its 200 nautical miles exclusive zone. After all, China only started to chip away at Philippine-claimed features when American bases vacated the country in 1992.
Also, it would be politically difficult for America to desist from meaningfully aiding a besieged Philippines when a significant amount of its troops are located on the Southeast Asian country’s soil. In short, America will be compelled to act if Sino-Philippine disputes get out of control and transform into a full-fledged confrontation. This is why EDCA means that China will have to more seriously take a American military response into consideration if and when it chooses to coercively occupy Philippine-controlled/claimed features.
Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that this will be enough to rein in Chinese ambitions in the area. Not to mention, China could in fact accelerate its construction activities, expand its paramilitary patrols and step up its military footprint in the Spratly chain of islands to pre-empt the expected spike in American military presence in the area. What is clear, however, is that China’s neighbors like the Philippines are desperate for American assistance like never before.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University, and previously served as a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives. As a specialist on Asian geopolitics and economic affairs, he has written for or been interviewed by Al Jazeera, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and USA TODAY, among other leading international publications. He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific (Zed, London). You can follow him on Twitter: @Richeydarian.