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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 24, 2012

US wades into China-Philippine standoff
By Al Labita

MANILA - China has beefed up its naval might around the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, threatening a clash as the United States and Philippines hold joint military exercises in the vicinity of the potentially energy rich disputed maritime territory.

In a show of force, a state-of-the-art Chinese vessel, the Yuzheng 310, is now on patrol near the Scarborough Shoal, raising the strategic ante as its maritime standoff with the Philippines heads into a second week. Certain news reports have suggested as many as five other Chinese patrol vessels are now in the area.

In contrast, a lone US-made Philippine Coast Guard ship


remains on alert in a lopsided faceoff with the Chinese fleet, while Manila's other warships joined the two-week joint drills, known as Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) the US is leading near the contested islands.

The US has deployed 4,500 marines, the bulk of them from its military base in Okinawa, Japan, and battleships in the biggest contingent since the joint war games began in 1983.

In an unprecedented exercise held near the Philippine island of Palawan on April 19, US and Philippine forces rehearsed retaking seized offshore oil and natural gas platforms. Philippine officials said the exercise was relevant in the context of Chinese harassment of energy exploration teams last year near the contested Reed Bank.

The US has issued assurances that the combined military exercise is not aimed at any country or rising territorial tensions. China, however, clearly remains wary. A recent Chinese military paper has warned that the US-Philippine joint exercises increase the potential for an armed confrontation in the region.

Slated to run from April 16 to 27, the two-week military maneuver has been joined for the first time by Manila's partners in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan, Australia and South Korea.

Manila is fielding 2,300 troops for the exercise, now seen as a key component of its mutual defense treaty (MDT) with Washington. Signed in 1951, the treaty will be up for review during the so-called 2+2 meeting of the two sides' defense and foreign affairs secretaries held on April 28-29 in Washington.

The exercise and confrontation come amid calls for scrapping the MDT by the political opposition. Leftist groups recently stormed the US embassy in Manila and held protests in Zamboanga City, both denouncing the war games as "provocative" at a time the Philippines tries to use peaceful dialogue with China to settle the territorial row.

The Washington meeting, expected to tackle China's rising use of force in dealing with other Spratly Islands claimants, including the Philippines and Vietnam, will precede a one-on-one meeting between US President Barack Obama and Philippine president Benigno Aquino.

Obama invited Aquino for a meeting during the ASEAN summit held in Jakarta last November. In his talks with Obama, Aquino is expected to press for more sophisticated military wares from the US to bolster their strategic alliance.

"We need more naval and air assets to protect our own territory," Philippine military chief General Jesse Dellosa recently said. "The whole world knows that China has myriad more ships and aircraft than the Philippines."

In a move that will boost the Philippines' external defense capability, Washington has already agreed to turn over to the Philippine Navy next month a second warship, the refurbished US Coast Guard cutter Dallas.

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar was turned over by the US Coast Guard to the Philippine Navy last December. Now the country's biggest warship, it was deployed on April 10 in a bid to stop Chinese fishermen from allegedly poaching in the Philippine-claimed shoal off the Spratlys. Chinese surveillance vessels were soon thereafter deployed, sparking the ongoing standoff.

The Scarborough Shoal, situated 124 nautical miles from the nearest base-point in Subic, north of Manila, is within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. It is about 740 miles from China's nearest point in Hainan province.

In his talks with Obama, Aquino is expected to offer the Philippine military's western command base in Palawan, west of Manila, to accommodate US forces, though its unclear how such a move would skirt the Philippine constitutional ban on foreign-run military bases in the country.

Palawan, west of Manila, faces the Spratly islands and hosts some oil-producing wells now operated by Dutch multinational Shell. China has challenged Philippine sovereignty over the area by harassing domestic exploration vessels and pressuring foreign energy firms given Philippine permission to explore in the area.

Strategic alliance
The US had kept mum on the latest confrontation plaguing the potentially oil and gas-rich Spratlys, a maritime region Manila refers to as its west Philippine Sea.

Over the weekend, however, US Commander of the Marines in the Pacific, Lieutenant General Duane Thiessen, reaffirmed the US's commitment to the MDT in response to a question about whether the US would provide assistance in a scenario where Chinese forces attacked Philippine units at Scarborough Shoal.

"The United States and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty which guarantees that we get involved in each other's defense and that is self explanatory," he told reporters in Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario has tried to drum up international support for his country's position in the latest dispute. He has touched on the same freedom of navigation themes the US has mentioned in previous statements on the wider Spratlys dispute.

China, on the other hand, has consistently said it will resist any US attempts to contain its ambitions in the region. While war over Scarborough Shoal seems remote, the maritime region faces more instability as fears rise the US and China could square off in a proxy battle for influence in the months ahead.

Beijing has remained intransigent to Manila's repeated calls for a peaceful approach to the standoff. Aquino has opposed openly going to war with China, saying "it will not serve us any good at a time that we are trying to de-escalate the situation."

While Aquino said his government was ready to protect the country's sovereignty "to the limits of our capabilities," he acknowledged that the Philippines lacks the resources to confront the Chinese. "Even in boxing, they are 1.3 billion, we are 95 million," he said.

But fears that the situation could eventually erupt are mounting as the Philippines and China refuse to budge and the US openly wades into the troubled waters. Though both sides have resorted to diplomacy and confidence building measures to ease tensions, talks towards a settlement on the claims have repeatedly crumbled.

China now appears to favor gunboat diplomacy. Chinese officials have publicly noted how weak the Philippines is in terms of military assets among the six claimants to the potentially energy rich Spratlys. Apart from Vietnam, the other claimants are Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.

Amid that muscle flexing, Beijing turned down Manila's latest proposal to raise their dispute before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Based in Germany, ITLOS is an independent judicial body established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that serves as mediator for disputes arising out of the Convention.

"At day's end, however, we hope to demonstrate that international law would be the great equalizer," Philippine foreign secretary del Rosario recently said.

Beijing, on the other hand, has remained steadfast in its preference for bilateral negotiations with Manila. It continues to insist that the Spratlys have belonged to China since ancient times and is now showing it has the modern firepower to stake those claims.

"Ever since the ancient times, numerous documents on the Chinese history have put down definitely in writing that Huangyan Island belongs to Chinese territory," the Chinese embassy in Manila said in a statement issued in response to the recent standoff.

Huangyan refers to the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal where the two sides are now squared off and the US is provocatively in the middle.

Al Labita is a Manila-based journalist.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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