Strategic alliances in Asia

By Val G. Abelgas

Obama and Aquino

Obama and Aquino

With China increasingly aggressive in asserting its territorial claims over most of the South China, it is inevitable that its smaller neighbors would form strategic defense alliances to protect themselves from the region’s bully.

The Philippine government was right in seeking strategic alliances with Japan, Vietnam and, of course, the United States. After forging a defense accord with Japan, the Philippines signed last week a roadmap towards a strategic defense partnership with Vietnam, China’s former ally.

Nguyen Tan Dung and Aquino

Nguyen Tan Dung and Aquino

The agreement presents the start of a united front against Chinese incursions in the disputed isles in the South China Sea, almost 90% of which is being claimed by the Chinese using an ancient map dating back to the time of the dynasties.

Both the Philippines and Vietnam are embroiled in escalating disputes with China over oil and marine resources-rich areas in the South China Sea.

Vietnamese ships recently engaged in a battle of water cannons with Chinese coast guard vessels near the Paracel Islands when the Chinese pulled a gigantic oilrig to the area obviously to begin tapping oil and natural gas in the area. Luckily, both protagonists opted to use water cannons instead of real cannons. Earlier, Vietnamese fishing vessels collided with a Chinese frigate that was part of the convoy towing the oilrig.

In 1974, the Chinese took control of the Paracels, which are well within the 200-mile economic zone of Vietnam, after a brief battle that resulted in the death of 54 Vietnamese troops.

Shinzo Abe and Aquino

Shinzo Abe and Aquino

The Chinese have also been slowly occupying islands claimed by the Philippines that are well within the country’s 200-mile economic zone. In 1993, the Chinese started occupying Panganiban or Mischief Reef and last year began occupying Panatag or Scarborough Shoal after a long standoff. In May last year, the Chinese sent a fleet of fishing vessels, two large civilian ships and a frigate to waters near the Ayungin Shoal. And early this month, the Chinese were found to be reclaiming land and building an airstrip over the Mabini Reef, which is very close to Zambales.

Despite repeated protests, Chinese officials insisted that they have the right to do anything in the disputed islands because they were rightfully theirs.

It is increasingly obvious that China could not be deterred by protests and the filing of legal cases before the international courts in its bid to take control of the South China Sea, which is critical to its goal of becoming a world superpower by 2025.

The 1.7 million square kilometers of the disputed South China Sea area is believed to contain from seven billion to as high as 130 billion barrels of oil reserves, and billions of barrels of natural gas, important resources that are necessary to fuel China’s economy and consequent rise as a superpower. The area is also a rich source of fish and other marine resources to feed the more than a billion Chinese.

Just as importantly, the area is a major shipping lane for many nations and accounts for more than half of the world’s shipping activity.

Amid the escalating tension in the area, analysts are questioning the weak and tentative response of the Obama administration. They said that after announcing a “pivot to Asia,” the US government has not really done much to back up its promise. Instead, they argue, Russia has done more to pivot to Asia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping all but formalizing a Russian-Chinese alliance earlier this month.

Putin and Xi signed an energy agreement that calls for Russia to supply China with $400 billion of natural gas over the next 30 years. And to show to the world that they have become comrades in arms, the Russian and Chinese Navies held a joint naval exercise in the East China Sea amid territorial tensions in Asia.

While China is spending billions of dollars to beef up its military muscle, the US is actually cutting down on its military budget as it focuses on its domestic problems.

Just like the Philippines, the US is aware that it needs to forge stronger alliances with Asian nations to counter the emerging Russo-Chinese alliance in the region. The US is not ready to build expensive new bases in the region, but it can reach agreements with host countries to use existing bases, just as it did with the Philippines through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

The US is also planning to expand its use of bases in Australia and Japan, and possibly Singapore and Thailand. In addition, Washington is wooing Malaysia. These countries are in the thick of an Asian arms race with China, which has become inevitable as their economies grow.

The world has indeed changed. The rise and fall of economies have resulted in shifting alliances, where friends have become foes and vice versa. Russia and China were major allies of the US in World War II and are now major rivals in the race for world dominance. Japan and Germany, which were the Americans; biggest enemies in the Second World War, on the other hand, are now America’s allies.

Vietnam was an ally of both Russia and China during the Vietnam War in the 60s, but is now an important American ally. Japan, which invaded and occupied the Philippines for five years in the Second World War, is now a Philippine ally.

Europe and the Pacific were the main theaters in the Second World War, and from all indications, Asia would continue to be the flashpoint in the world’s military theater in the coming years. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, the two Koreas, and other Asian countries are all beefing up their military muscles in one of the biggest arms races the world has ever seen.

The Philippines, which does not have the means to keep up with its neighbors in the arms race, needs to start positioning itself rightly in this developing drama.



One Response. Have your say.

  1. Fernando Habito says:

    The expansionist program of China to dominate militarily and economically the small neighboring countries needs reactions. Strategic alliance with Japan, Vietnam, USA and others can be the best approach which could be done through diplomacy approach to prevent the catastrophe of war in South China sea.

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