Author: CHUNG Yoon Ngan
Date: 05-08-12 05:09
Old allies, new provocation
By Simon Tay
May 4, 2012 - 9:00am http://www.chinadailyapac.com
Military exercises among treaty allies should normally neither surprise nor cause offence. But those just completed between the United States and the Philippines are perceived differently, and not without some justification.
With some 7,000 troops reportedly involved, the bilateral exercise took place around Palawan in the South China Sea, where different islets are disputed between China and the Philippines. The exercise moreover follows a high-profile standoff between the Filipino coast guard and fishing vessels from China at the disputed Huangyan Island.
Military commanders on both sides mostly treated the exercise as being routine, part of the long-running “Balikatan” (meaning shoulder-to-shoulder) maneuvers. Political statements however ran contrary. Both Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario reacted by calling on not only the US but others in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to rally against China’s alleged aggressiveness.
Beijing in contrast has shown restraint. While Chinese media commentators have been hawkish, government officials like Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai emphasized dialogue and diplomacy.
How best should the Americans and ASEAN respond?
US President Barack Obama’s declaration of a “pivot” to Asia sets the context. Many read this to mean that the US is prepared to take sides against China, even as American leaders strongly deny any such intention.
The symbolism must be watched. At end-2011, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton celebrated the 60th anniversary of their Filipino alliance on board a US guided missile destroyer in Manila Bay. She also pledged to support the Philippines in the maritime domain and transfer a naval vessel to their command.
The reality is that the Americans face a reduction in their forces across Asia. The US military has recently reduced its presence in Okinawa by 9,000 marines. The Philippines, which once hosted large American military contingents at the Subic and Clark bases, has now invited American troops to return, on a rotational basis, although there is currently no suggestion for new bases.
The current Obama team is savvy enough to manage their pivot to Asia without getting ensnared in anti-Chinese interests. But even if President Obama is re-elected, Secretary Clinton has indicated she will leave and their well-regarded pointsman on Asia, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, is also likely to depart.
A new American team will be in place by next year and there will be a learning curve. If it is a Republican administration, the strong campaign rhetoric from contender Mitt Romney can raise tensions.
On their part, ASEAN should not automatically back the Philippines. Nor should the Aquino government expect unquestioning support from the group if it seems to be the one provoking the issue.
What needs to be done by ASEAN is to reinforce the multilateral setting for dialogue about the South China Sea and other issues. The ASEAN Regional Forum will be one venue, while another will be when ASEAN defense ministers meet with eight counterparts, including from the US and China. More specifically, a code of conduct for disputes in the South China Sea has been promised, and needs to be fleshed out and agreed upon in practical terms.
Bilateral security alliances — like that between the US and the Philippines — were once accepted as a foundation for Pax Americana. They will undoubtedly continue. Some appear anxious to reinforce them by, if need be, ringing the China alarm.
Today’s need however is not for more aggressive alliances with the US targeted against anyone. The region needs instead to pursue and strengthen wider processes that can engage both the US and China.
Almost all agree that keeping the Americans in Asia can be positive. But equally, the region must understand that treating Beijing as an outsider and always presuming it to be the aggressor is a dangerous and potentially self-fulfilling prophesy.
The author is chairman of Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America. He also teaches international law at the National University of Singapore.