[First of Two Parts]
Let’s make sure we know exactly what this bases access offer to the United States and Japan really means.
First, President Benigno Aquino 3rd is taking sides in what will be the paramount superpower rivalry in coming decades. That’s a radical departure from the past administration’s policy of building strong relations with America, China and Japan, since it isn’t wise for small, weak nations to make enemies of big, powerful ones.
Aquino’s U.S. alignment puts the Philippines in a position similar to that of Cuba during the Washington-Moscow Cold War rivalry from 1950 till the Soviet collapse in 1990. Cuba’s alliance with the U.S.S.R. shut it out of the world’s most dynamic and prosperous economy of the past half-century. America also used its dominant geopolitical and military clout to constrict Cuba on the international stage.
Now, China will become the top global economy for the coming decades, as the U.S. was in the past two generations. As the leading trading partner and foreign investor for dozens of nations, China also exercises growing global influence. If the nation continues Aquino’s policy of siding with the U.S. against China, expect the Philippines to get from China the same economic and diplomatic cold shoulder that Cuba got from America.
Second point: The Philippines now plays host to a constant rotation of nuclear-armed American warships and submarines capable of nuking from the country eight of China’s ten most populous cities (see April 15 column). Now, President Aquino offers the U.S. and Japan access to air and naval bases. This policy succeeds where Cuba failed when the U.S. stopped the stationing of Soviet rockets on the island during the 1960 Cuban Missile Crisis.
If aviation and maritime facilities are made available to American and Japanese forces, China would have to add to its ballistic missile target list Clark, Subic, Villamor, San Fernando, Basa, and other possible bases. Thus, in confronting China over half-submerged islets and shoals far away from the main Philippine islands, Aquino proposes to make airports and seaports near major population centers legitimate targets for Chinese attack. Is that suicidal or what?
There’s more. If there are tensions between China and America or Japan, even when the Philippines has no direct interest in the issues, such as the Beijing-Tokyo dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, the country is forced to be involved, since our lands and seas would be places from which the U.S. and Japan can wage war.
Thus, to get purported American and Japanese backing in our one dispute with the Chinese, Aquino will involve and endanger Filipinos in the many security issues that big powers inevitably have with one another, from Taiwan and Vietnam to North Korea and Senkaku/Diaoyutai. That includes tens of thousands of compatriots working in Chinese cities, including Hong Kong and Macau. Is this the way to advance national security?
Now, bringing in the U.S. and Japan into the country’s backyard is supposed to make China less aggressive and more agreeable in the South China Sea. In fact, it has the opposite effect. By allowing American and Japanese forces to permanently operate in and near the archipelago, with access to bases, China will have even more reason to build up its air, naval and missile capabilities in the South China Sea.
Far more strategically important to China than tiny outcrops and waters visited by its fishermen are the South China Sea shipping routes through which a mammoth chunk of its trade, including four-fifths of its oil imports, flow.
To counter potentially hostile forces of America and possibly Japan prowling in the Philippines within cruise-missile and fighter-bomber range of Chinese oil and cargo vessels, the People’s Liberation Army, including PLA navy, air force and missiles, must necessarily expand their reach and firepower in the South China Sea.
Hence, over a year ago, the PLA moved at least one rocket brigade to the southern coast, from which its medium-range projectiles can attack all of the South China Sea and most of Southeast Asia, including the entire Philippines. Moreover, China will continue building up its naval facilities in the Spratlys.
With the escalation of U.S. and Japanese activity in the Philippines, Beijing would almost surely not sign a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Certainly not an accord restricting military deployment and activity in the area.
China hosted Code negotiations for years until the Philippines insisted last year on having a common ASEAN position before resuming talks. If Beijing signs a pact, the PLA would have to restrict operations and expansion in the disputed waters. That would leave the South China Sea open for the U.S. and Japan, which would not be Code signatories, to build up their air and naval strength.
In sum, not only does President Aquino’s defense policy expose the Philippines to Chinese economic, diplomatic and defense pressures, it also worsens the South China Sea problem by forcing the PLA to build up in the area to match the U.S. Seventh Fleet and the Japanese Navy expanding in and near the Philippines.
So how should the Philippines defend its territory and economic zones without becoming a U.S. and Japanese outpost in their rivalry with China? That would be the subject of the last part of this article, to be published on Wednesday.