War Clouds Over South China Sea As U.S. Declares Right To Waters And U.S. Warship Arrives At Subic – Donald Kirk/Forbes
The drumbeat of war on distant horizons is reverberating through Southeast Asia with increasingly strong declarations of U.S. determination to stop the Chinese from expanding their writ over the South China Sea, notably islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
While Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in Singapore vowing that U.S. planes and ships would go wherever they wanted in international waters WAT -0.71%, the U.S. navy missile cruiser Shiloh was hoving into view at the historic Subic Bay port northwest of Manila.
Reports of Carter’s tough remarks at a gathering of defense ministers and the Shiloh’s visit to Subic Bay, the largest U.S. navy base before the Americans were forced to give it all up more than 20 years ago, were couched in euphemisms that scarcely masked the impression of spiraling tensions. “We want a peaceful resolution of all disputes,” Carter began. “A routine port call,” said a Philippine navy spokesman when asked what the Shiloh was doing at Subic Bay, in the once roaring American base town of Olongapo.
Oh sure. Those soothing assurances somehow only heightened the sense of an impending collision in the South China Sea around the Spratly Islands, where China has added about 2,000 acres to its holdings in the past year and a half by reclaiming land from the shallow waters. TV news programs in the Philippines and other countries repeatedly show what look like the makings of military bases, including air strips long enough for just about any plane, extending from shoals and atolls long since taken by China.
Not that gunfire is about to break out right away. Carter chose an especially supine grouping before which to call for a code of conduct that would unite all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations behind a demand for freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of all disputes. ASEAN, while bringing leaders of the ten together for meetings, has been notoriously ineffective in coming up with real agreements on anything, much less on mutual defense.
Nonetheless, the fear of armed conflict has risen as U.S. observation planes monitoring construction of the bases in the Spratlys, have defied Chinese demands not to violate what the Chinese see as their territorial space. CNN aired a dramatic display of this confrontation in a report recording the voices of Chinese ordering a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon spy plane from flying over the fringes of the Spratlys. The pilot of the plane ignored the order, challenging Chinese authority and almost daring the Chinese to do something about it.
So far rhetoric rather than gunfire has been the response. Carter in Singapore declared the U.S. would “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.” In Beijing, Chinese officials in tandem with the Chinese media have been excoriating the U.S. for inflaming tensions, particularly in supporting the complaints of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III regarding China’s encroachment on islands claimed by Manila.
“One cannot help wondering whether Pentagon is now moving to the forefront in challenging China in the South China Sea,” said a commentary in the English-language China Daily, a major organ for the Chinese viewpoint that circulates in the U.S. and Europe as well as China. The paper singled out the Philippines for “involving countries which have nothing to do with the maritime dispute,” seeking “to consolidate its unwarranted claims on China’s territory and cover up its persistent trouble-making.”
Chinese diplomats have been on a global offensive to convey Chinese complaints. China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, said “we have to defend the facilities on these islands and reefs” while building up “for self-defense, not for attacking others.” He warned the U.S. against “attempts to replay the Cold War in Asia.”
The arrival of the Shiloh at Subic Bay, where the U.S. had a base from the early days of U.S. rule over the Philippines at the beginning of the last century, showed the close coordination between the U.S. and the Philippines over defense in the South China Sea.
U.S. officials in Manila said the Shiloh would stay in Subic Bay only long enough to refuel and take on other supplies before going on patrol in nearby waters. The question was whether the Shiloh, accompanied by other vessels, including destroyers and perhaps submarines, would enter waters close to the Chinese reclamation projects. The result would, at the least, provoke a fusillade of demands for the ships to go away as well as a critical comments from the Chinese officials and the Chinese media.
For Filipinos, the question was whether the occasional use of Subic Bay for U.S. navy vessels would be a precursor to a bygone era. U.S. forces withdrew from Subic, and from Clark Air Base across the Zambales mountains, in 1991, after the Philippines refused to renew its longstanding bases agreement with the U.S.The Philippine-American alliance, however, has remained in force with U.S. troops going to the Philippines for frequent military exercises and U.S. soldiers advising Philippine troops fighting Muslim rebels on the large southern Island of Mindanao and the outlying Sulu archipelago.
In recent years the U.S. and Philippines have coordinated still more closely under a “visiting forces agreement” that has aroused widespread controversy in the Philippines.In a still greater historical irony, President Aquino goes to Japan this week in search of support — and perhaps assistance — for the Philippine position.
Japan has extended massive economic aid to the Philippines but has refrained from military assistance to a country that still harbors bitter memories of a Japanese occupation that lasted more than three years after Japanese forces drove out the Americans at the outset of World War II. The Americans finally retook the Philippines after some of the bloodiest urban fighting of the war in and around Manila.
To read more of my commentaries on Asia news, click on www.donaldkirk.com