Pawns in geopolitical chess

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Hours before US President Barack Obama arrived in Manila, the Philippines and US signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), hailed as a key aspect in the Washington’s Asia-Pacific re-pivot strategy.

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Throughout his four-country Asian swing, Obama has projected the re-pivot as proof that the US recognizes the significance of the Asia-Pacific in the new world order, and that it must play a key role in shaping the region’s economic and political landscape.

That direction is likely to thrust the US into a dangerous confrontation with China, which has not veiled its intention to become the region’s unchallenged dominant player. Obama, however, is careful not to ruffle Beijing’s feathers, stressing that it is not America’s intention to “counter” or “contain” China. “Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected,” he reiterated at a press conference in Malacañang on Monday.

The American president’s words are supposed to have a reassuring ring to them. But they do not allay lingering concerns about a run-in between the two superpowers as they play a game of geopolitical chess in Asia.

For its rebalancing policy to work, the US will depend on the unwavering support from its allies in the region. It already has Japan and South Korea on its side, economic giants that have the clout to face up to China. But what about less economically endowed nations like the Philippines? Will we be relegated to being a pawn in a high-stakes contest?

The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement could provide a clue to our role in the US’ scheme of things. The accord opens the door to the arrival of more US troops in the Philippines, but they cannot be permanently based here; the Philippine Constitution prohibits that.

“Greater cooperation between American and Filipino forces would enhance our ability to train, exercise, and operate with each other and respond even faster to a range of challenges,” Obama said. The challenges include a speedier response to calamities and building a deterrent against terrorism.

What is not in black and white is that the agreement could effectively curb China’s expansionist designs in the region. Obama may deny it to high heavens, but the accord sends a message to Beijing: This is where we’re drawing the line. Cross it at your own risk.

The persistent question is, where exactly is this line? Will it be crossed when Chinese troops land on Ayungin Shoal and drive out the handful of Marines stationed in a derelict Philippine warship there?

Is it when Chinese coast guard fires live bullets instead of water cannon at Filipino fishermen approaching Scarborough Shoal?

And if the line is crossed, how will the US respond?

President Obama could not be baited into answering such a sensitive question. But there are voices in Washington that insist the US will never risk a shooting war with China over the Philippines. They claim that we do not have the same economic value to the US as Japan and South Korea do. In other words, the Philippines is a pawn that can be sacrificed.

Obama himself admitted that China is vital to the US as insofar as trade is concerned. “I think it’s good for the region and the world if China is successfully developing and lifting its people out of poverty,” he said.

If that is the case, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement we just signed is nothing but an elaborate charade.

We sincerely hope it is not. But we need straight answers from President Obama. All he has given us are evasions.

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