If and when the United States sails warships and flies fighter planes in a massive and potentially provocative show of force near China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines will be there in spirit though not in force.
The US Navy’s Pacific Fleet recently drew up a classified proposal to carry out several missions over a week in November as a warning to China and a demonstration of America’s resolve and capacity to counter Beijing’s recent militarization of the contested waterway.
The proposed show of force, which reportedly would include a concentrated set of operations in both the South China Sea and the nearby Taiwan Strait, was first reported by CNN.
The exercises, if launched, would underline US President Donald Trump’s emerging “peace through strength” strategy to contain China’s maritime assertiveness, witnessed in recent ramped up freedom of navigation operations in the area.
Those operations, which China views as violation of its sovereign claims, have brought the US and Chinese warships into provocative proximity. If the US Navy’s proposed mass mobilization is launched, some security analysts foresee the potential for clashes.
The US Navy’s proposed show of force puts the Philippines between a rock and a hard place. Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque said on October 9 without elaborating that Filipino forces will not join in the US exercises.
Reports suggested the proposed US drills could coincide with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Manila in November. Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua reportedly expressed his concern about the exercises at a meeting with Philippine officials on October 8, the reports said.
As a concession to China ahead of Xi’s visit, the Philippines even announced that it will participate in the upcoming joint China-Asean naval drills from October 22 to 29. It will be Manila’s first military exercise with Beijing, to be held in waters off Zhanjiang city in China’s southern Guangdong province.
The Philippines and China are locked in sometimes heated South China Sea disputes, including over the strategically significant Scarborough Shoal, which China seized control over after a months-long naval standoff in 2012.
President Rodrigo Duterte has bid to deescalate the tensions through more engagement with Beijing, but has come under criticism, including from his defense establishment, for being overly accommodating and in the process alienating the US.
But US-Philippine strategic interests are now strongly, if not quietly, realigning as the Trump administration takes a seemingly tougher stand in the South China Sea and steps up his country’s naval diplomacy in the region to contain China’s ambitions.
America’s proposed show of force in the waterway notably coincides with recent ramped up joint exercises with the Philippines, including the week-long “Cooperation of Warriors at Sea” drills which wrapped up on October 10.
The exercises ostensibly focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, but clearly had broader implications for naval interoperability between the two allies.
As many as 100 Japanese Marines were also invited as observers, underlying recent deeper naval cooperation among the three treaty allies, all of who share concerns about China’s rising assertiveness in a growing number of maritime areas.
Last month, Japanese destroyers and a helicopter carrier visited the Philippines for a good will visit. Tokyo has also recently become a regular observer in the annual Philippine-US Balikatan “Shoulder to Shoulder” joint exercises, which involved 8,000 troops this year.
The exercises were bolstered by strategic diplomacy. In late September, Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command met Presidential Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
On September 27, Davidson and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Carlito Galvez agreed to increase bilateral annual joint exercises from 261 to 281.
“We have been doing this year after year and yet there is still so much to learn,” Galvez said in a statement after his meeting with Davison.
In particular, the new exercises are expected to expand maritime security cooperation. This is consistent with Davidson’s vision, revealed prior to his confirmation earlier this year, for a more muscular American Indo-Pacific fleet.
In his testimony before a US Senate committee in April, he spoke of plans to “recalibrate” the gigantic fleet’s disposition, which boasts 375,000 military and civilian personnel, 200 ships and nearly 1,100 aircraft in the Indo-Pacific theater.
In his statement, he emphasized a vision that “entails ensuring the continued combat readiness of assigned forces in the western Pacific; developing an updated footprint that accounts for China’s rapid modernization and pursuing agreements with host nations that allow the United States to project power when necessary.”
Strengthening ties with allies such as the Philippines is central to that plan. Davidson’s visit built on high-profile meetings between top American officials and the Philippine defense chief a week earlier, where the two allies discussed ways to augment their bilateral alliance.
Top Philippine defense officials, meanwhile, have recently reaffirmed their commitment to the alliance, including at a September meeting in Washington between Defense Secretary Lorenzana and his US counterpart James Mattis.
At that meeting, Lorenzana said that the “Philippines-US alliance remains robust, based on an enduring history of close engagement and our unwavering commitment to work together on shared values”, according to a statement. Lorenzana also met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
According to US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauart, the two “discussed cooperation on addressing regional security challenges, including the militarization of the South China Sea” and reaffirmed America’s “support for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.”
After nearly two years of frayed ties, the bilateral alliance is now reviving just as a new tensions kick up in the South China Sea. And while Philippine forces may not participate in America’s expected upcoming show of force against China in the contested maritime area, it seems increasingly clear which side they are on.