Analysis: Is US-Philippines diplomacy destabilizing Southeast Asia?
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Analysis: Is US-Philippines diplomacy destabilizing Southeast Asia?

The recent news from Vietnam – of riots, of people who died and of people who are planning to leave the country – has so far achieved a single clear result: pushing out of the headlines the diplomatic developments between the Philippines, the United States and China.

Yet, the territorial disputes between the People’s Republic and the Philippines – and the role which the United States play in them – are usually heralded by experts as a major issue for the stability of the region, if not for the whole of the Pacific Ocean. And the last few weeks were quite full of news on this front.

US President Barack Obama recently visited the Philippines as part of a wider Asian tour which lasted from April 22-29 and also included Japan, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea. In Manila, he signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which will have a duration of 10 years and will, among other things, allow the US military to have greater access to military ‘locations’ – essentially bases – on Filipino territory.

The news was received in the West as the Obama administration’s second attempt at forging a credible ‘pivot to Asia’ and in China as the Obama administration’s second attempt at credibly surround the country.

Articles which appeared in Chinese newspapers indicate that Beijing sees itself very much as the target of the new American focus on Asia. The People’s Daily reported the opinion of an expert on Southeast Asian Affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Jia Duqiang, according to whom the pact is a component of “the Obama administration’s ongoing plans to militarize issues that are rumbling the Asia-Pacific region.” The Global Times wrote instead that “despite the US leader’s efforts to mitigate Beijing’s doubts, analysts indicate the defense agreement will in fact narrow the window of conflict settlement in the South China Sea and encourage recklessness by Manila in any potential clash with Beijing.”

The centrality of China to US plans in the Pacific is a real question. According to Andrew Billo, Associate Fellow with the Asia Society, “the agreement, while not explicitly directed at China, reflects growing concerns about the territorial disputes in the region and China’s ambitious territorial claims.”

According to Dr. Scott Harold, an Associate Political Scientist with the RAND Corporation, the answer to that question largely depends on the angle one takes. “From the US perspective the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) does not have much to do with preparing for a conflict with China,” he told Asian Correspondent, “but instead it has to do with helping the Philippines to understand what is happening in the air and maritime spaces near their territory and to more effectively control and police their own waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).”

In Manila, however, things look a wee bit different. “From the Philippines side it has a lot to with China,” said Dr Harold. “There has been a lot of tension between the two countries since the 1995, when China seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines. China has very extensive claims in the South China Sea but no other country recognizes these as legitimate.”

Another serious question is whether a larger US involvement will help put a cap on rising tensions among regional powers – or whether will fuel further discontent. According to Mr. Billo, the defense agreement has the potential to “caution China’s approach in the Philippines.” However, he warned that this may come at the expense of Vietnam, who could be caught in the middle of a diplomatic firefight. “Rather than risk going head to head with the Philippines, Vietnam will become the victim,” he told us. “It is my view that this is why China elected to begin using its Haiyan Shaiyou drill in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).”

The agreement has received further publicity because of the Balikatan exercises, a military drill which began on May 5 and reportedly involved 3,000 Filipino soldiers and 2,500 American military personnel. Despite the fact that the drill takes place every year and that it had already been scheduled prior to Obama’s visit, the timing of the operation – just after the EDCA had been signed – has contributed to give a special significance to the event. “It is not that the drills are so different, but rather the timing,” pointed out Mr. Billo. “If regional tensions were not heightened, then I don’t believe the media would be scrutinizing this exercise to the same degree. But when the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary delivers a speech at the drill’s opening ceremony stating that ‘aggressive behaviours’ threaten to undermine regional peace, then the drills do take on a new dimension.”

Diplomacy usually takes time to deliver results, and the agreement will play out – if it will in any meaningful way – in the long term. But as far as omens go, those under which it has begun its existence are hardly encouraging. Less than two weeks after pact was finalized, on May 7, the Philippines seized a Chinese fishing boat which was sailing in the disputed area, letting it be known that the vessel was “carrying large numbers of endangered species.” The promise, reported by the government’s Official Gazette, that “relevant authorities in Palawan will address this case in a just, humane and expeditious manner,” was not enough to assuage Chinese anger, which prompted official complaints from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Last week, Manila also reported that China is building an airstrip on one of the disputed reefs. According to Reuters, that would be “the first built by China on any of the eight reefs and islands it occupies in the Spratly Islands and would mark a significant escalation in tensions involving several nations in the area.”

And, of course, last week Vietnam descended into some of the worst anti-Chinese violence seen in decades. The need for stability seems, after the military agreement and various recent developments, more urgent than ever.