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Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Philippines, a choice hold for the United States in its war of influence with China


The Philippines and the United States signed an agreement on Thursday that allows American soldiers free access to four new military bases in the Philippines. Bad news for China as the archipelago occupies a strategic place in an area where Washington is trying to stem Beijing’s influence.

More US troops near China. This is the main consequence of the new agreement concluded, Wednesday, February 1, between the United States and the Philippines during a visit by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Manila.

The government of Ferdinand Marcos Jr granted the American army access to four additional military bases, mainly in the north of the archipelago. From now on, American soldiers can access nine Philippine military bases in all and store equipment and ammunition there.

Back to the pro-Washington box

The benefit of this military agreement for Washington may seem obvious: “it allows, first of all, to end the military encirclement of China in the region of the China Sea. In the north, the United States can use the American base in Okinawa in Japan and the bases in South Korea, while in the south American power can now be projected from the bases in the Philippines”, summarizes Danilo delle Fave, specialist security issues in Asia and associate researcher at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona, an international collective of experts in international security issues.

But it is above all a return to the pro-Washington box for a country that occupies an essential geostrategic place in the war of influence that the United States and China are waging in this region of the globe. The US administration can “finally tell itself again that it can count on the Philippines in the event of a conflict with Beijing”, underlines Tom Smith, specialist in the Philippines and security issues in Southeast Asia at the University of Portsmouth.

Historically, the archipelago has had a relationship of “I love you neither” with the United States. On paper, Manila is Washington’s oldest ally in the region under a military cooperation agreement that dates back to 1951.

But the reality is much more complex. Firstly because the gigantic military bases which belonged to the United States – handed over in the early 1990s – posed serious problems which seriously damaged the image of Uncle Sam in the country. “There have been cases of sex trafficking and prostitution that have left their mark,” recalls Tom Smith.

Nor was the Philippines of particular strategic importance to the United States in the East-West confrontation that dominated the Cold War years.

But Washington has started to make eyes at Manila again “after the September 11 attacks, because the archipelago could prove to be a useful ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism”, explains Tom Smith. The American army has thus begun to train Filipino soldiers in order to better fight against the terrorist movement Abu Sayyaf, which is very present in the southern islands of the Philippines.

A bridge further for the United States

Since then, the strategic value of the Philippines has only grown. The archipelago has “regained the same importance as during the Second World War”, maintains Danilo delle Fave. At the time, the Philippines was the first land barrier between Asia and the United States. During the Second World War, it was a question of blocking the road in Japan whereas today, it is to limit the fields of action of China.

In the eyes of Washington and Beijing, “the Philippines is a bridge between the two regions – America and Asia – and those who have Manila’s favor can project themselves more easily on one side or the other of the Pacific”, assures Danilo delle Fave.

And the United States watched with apprehension the rapprochement operated by its oldest Asian “ally” with China during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, between 2016 and 2022. The controversial ex-Filipino leader openly courted Beijing, announcing his ideological proximity with the Chinese regime, while repeatedly criticizing Barack Obama.

Rodrigo Duterte offered his allegiance to Beijing in exchange for some promises of investment in infrastructure and the abandonment of Chinese claims to the Spratly Islands, which have been at the heart of Sino-Philippine tensions since the 1990s.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, at the head of the country since June 2022, also started by giving pledges to China. He went to Beijing in early January 2023 to “deepen the collaboration with Beijing”.

Beijing’s Dark Intransigence

Barely three weeks later, Philippine power made a 180° turn with the new military agreement. Why this reversal of jacket? “The failure of Duterte’s diplomatic approach is essentially due to Chinese intransigence over Beijing’s territorial claims on the Spartley Islands,” said Danilo delle Fave.

Beijing not only refuses to compromise but has also failed to increase investment in the Philippines over the past six years. The January trip was a way for Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to offer China one last chance before “recognizing that the American offer is the most interesting for Manila”, explains Tom Smith. The United States promised to defend the Philippine fleet if it were attacked by the Chinese in the South China Sea.

The Chinese intransigence that ultimately drove the Philippines into American arms may come as a surprise. From now on Beijing will not only find it much more difficult to play tough in the South China Sea knowing that there are permanently stationed American troops in the Philippines. But these new bases are also just over 300 km from Taiwan, which further strengthens American capabilities to react quickly in the event of a conflict between China and Taiwan.

In fact, “China preferred to have the certainty of having a foothold on the islands it claims rather than a promise of allegiance from a country that has already changed its mind several times”, believes Danilo delle Fave.

And Beijing has not said its last word. He has already deplored, on Thursday, the signing of the military agreement, ensuring that it would contribute to fueling tensions in the region. But “a rise in tone on the Chinese side is only a first step”, wants to believe Tom Smith. This expert thinks that China will want to prove that it can continue to navigate without problems in the territorial waters of the Philippines. There should therefore be an increase in incidents involving Chinese and Filipino vessels. But for the moment none of the countries involved – China, the Philippines and the United States – has an interest in seeing these incidents degenerate into an open crisis. According to the experts interviewed, we have to wait at least another decade to get there.

Copyright © 2023 The Eastern Herald.

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