Friday, October 22, 2010


Joshua Kurlantzick, a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) wrote, “The best way for Washington to respond, in the context of Southeast Asia, is to hide”.

“Not to hide from China,” he hastens to add, “but in some ways to hide America’s response behind the Southeast Asians, who have serious concerns about China’s new assertiveness.”

The question about how to deal with China is perhaps the biggest foreign policy question for the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, as it does with most Southeast Asian leaders.

This will be in everyone’s mind in next week’s East Asia Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam that President Aquino is attending, only his 2nd foreign trip since moving to Malacanang.

When US State Secretary Hillary Clinton was last in Vietnam, her declaration on America’s commitment for the peaceful resolution of overlapping claims in the South China Sea drew angry reactions from Beijing.

China has declared the South China Sea as part of her “core interests” – the same phrase she uses for Taiwan and Tibet.

There are signs of growing nervousness on both sides.

Growing Nervousness

Rick Rozoff, writing for the Centre for Research on Globalization, noted the increased military activity in the region.

He listed the first joint exercise between the US and Vietnam last August, that featured the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington (a 2nd battle group led by another nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln is reportedly in the region as well); in June, Malaysia and Thailand joined the US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise along with Australia, Canada, France, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and other countries; and earlier this month, the US and Philippines simultaneously held the PHIBLEX joint amphibious exercise and Cooperation Afloat Readiness & Training (CARAT) involving 3,000 American troops and six warships.

Kurlantzick also cited data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) to argue that there is an ongoing “arms race” in the region.

Weapons purchases nearly doubled from 2005 to 2009, he explained, with Vietnam recently paying $2.4 billion for Russian submarines and fighter aircraft, and Malaysia buying its own submarines for $1 billion.

“This arms race has proceeded despite the fact most Southeast Asian nations have no obvious near enemies and if they are involved in conflicts, they tend to be local insurgencies that hardly require the kid of sophisticated air, sea and missile weaponry,” he averred.

In Search of A Superpower “Padrino”

So where does this leave the Philippines, with virtually no external defense capability and a promised but nonexistent military modernization program.

Philippine defense spending as a percentage of GDP has been cut by half in the past three decades from about 1.6% in 1988.

It has over 100,000 troops, about 80% of them ground forces.

Unfortunately, the Philippines is situated in a region that is the 2nd biggest buyer of weapons, next only to the Middle East (according to SIPRI, China is also the 2nd biggest arms spender, next to the US).

With practically no navy and air force, the Philippine has lagged so far behind its neighbors for so long that it will be nearly impossible for her to even build some semblance of parity even if the nation’s defense budget quadruples for say, the next decade.

The Philippines will have to rely on the security umbrella provided by others, particularly the US.

RP security tied to arbiter’s role

But the Philippines will still have a role to play in the power dynamics between the US and China. It has no choice, because the country will be in the frontline of any possible conflict. It was the Philippines that alerted the world on Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, when the military discovered permanent Chinese structures on Mischief Reef.

President Obama had earlier made the Philippines the US’s “point-man” in Southeast Asia.

“Hiding behind the Southeast Asians will be more effective with China,” Kurlantzick argues in CFR’s “Expert’s Roundup”.

“China expects relatively confrontational behavior from Washington but over the past decade it has spent significant resources trying to upgrade its tires with Southeast Asia, and warnings from the Southeast Asians do carry real weight in Beijing,” Kurlantzick wrote.

“Washington,” he averred, “ should whenever possible, enlist Southeast Asian leaders like Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Philippine President Benigno Aquino to help make its claims for continued American roles in the region.”

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