The past few days have been abuzz with coverage of China’s wild economic swings, as volatility in its financial markets, coupled with structural slowdown, chip away at the country’s long-held image of prosperity. No less than George Soros, a global icon known for his prescient economic forecasts, has warned about the prospects of another global economic crisis on the heels of a whimpering China.
For some countries, however, it is China’s growing territorial assertiveness in adjacent waters that is of grave concern. Undeterred by its anaemic economy and successive stock market meltdowns, China kicked off the year with a bang by conducting multiple test flights to bitterly contested islands in the South China Sea.
Having constructed a gigantic airstrip on an artificially created island (Fiery Cross), China showed little reticence with displaying its growing ability to dominate the skies above arguably the world’s most important international waterway.
Alarmed by China’s territorial assertiveness, the Philippines has once again opened up its most prized military base to US troops. Smaller neighbouring countries have desperately welcomed growing US military footprint in the region in order to stave off a revanchist China, which is gradually reconfiguring the Asian maritime seascape in its own image.
A history of dependence
For much of its modern history, the Philippines has lived in the shadow of its former colonial master, the United States. Though the Southeast Asian nation gained formal independence in the mid-20th century, it effectively outsourced its national security to Washington throughout the Cold War decades.
A series of landmark agreements, particularly the Military Assistance Pact (1947), the Military Bases Agreement (1947), and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951, undergirded the Philippines’ acute dependence on the superpower.
The former US colony served as a critical forward deployment base against the Communist threat in East Asia. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union ... unleashed a patriotic euphoria in the Philippines, which precipitated the ejection of US bases from the country shortly after.
The Philippines, which hosted America’s largest overseas military bases in Subic and Clark, effectively acted as Washington’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific.
In particular, the former US colony served as a critical forward deployment base against the Communist threat in East Asia. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), however, unleashed a patriotic euphoria in the Philippines, which precipitated the ejection of US bases from the country shortly after.
Constitutionally, the Philippines was barred from hosting permanent US troops on its oil. The Philippines was by now intent on becoming more self-reliant, abandoning its explicitly pro-US foreign policy throughout the Cold War days. It didn’t take long, however, before the Philippines realised that it was dangerously unprepared for full independence.
The China threat
Shortly after the exit of US bases, China occupied the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, triggering a diplomatic crisis between the two neighbours.
In response, the Philippines re-invited US soldiers under a Visiting Forces Agreement, which oversaw expanding joint military exercises between the two allies. But US troops were barred from (i) engaging in direct combat operations and (ii) establishing permanent bases in the Philippines.
The South China Sea disputes are nothing new, dating back to the Cold War years when China squared up to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries for mastery of disputed islands, resources, and waters in the area.
But in the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of maritime spats, with China flexing its muscles at the expense of weaker claimant states such as the Philippines, which lost the Scarborough Shoal to its giant neighbour in 2012.
In the past two years alone, China has engaged in a construction frenzy on disputed land features across the Spratly chain of islands, artificially transforming rocks, atolls and shoals into gigantic islands, which now host advanced dual-purpose facilities.
Hopelessly outgunned by China, which has rapidly developed both its conventional and asymmetrical military capabilities, the Philippines has tried to solicit greater US military assistance in the form of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was signed hours before US President Barack Obama’s visit to Manila in 2014.
A group of patriotic and progressive groups, however, immediately challenged the new security agreement at the Philippine Supreme Court. They contend that the EDCA is a violation of Philippine sovereignty, will lead to more abuses by US soldiers against Filipino citizens, and necessitates the concurrence of the Philippine Senate, which bitterly resented being bypassed by the Benigno Aquino administration.
After almost a year of deliberations, the country’s highest court ruled that the bilateral security agreement was consistent with Philippine constitution and, as an Executive Agreement, doesn’t necessitate Senate ratification. It was arguably a decision that was both populist and born out of an acute sense of urgency.
The vast majority of Filipinos (92 percent) have a favourable view of the US, the highest among any nation, so they are expected to warmly welcome the prospect of growing US military presence in the country. Both the ruling establishment and majority of Filipinos are also deeply worried about China’s growing assertiveness in Philippine-claimed waters.
The Philippines hopes that EDCA, which provides expanded US rotational access to eight of its most important military bases, including those that embrace the disputed South China Sea, will serve as a “latent deterrence” against further Chinese assertiveness. The bilateral security agreement also augments pre-existing joint military exercises, facilitates better interoperability among their militaries, and paves the way for more US military assistance to the Philippines.
Yet, there is nothing in the agreement, which guarantees US assistance to the Philippines in the event of war with China over disputed features in the South China Sea. Unlike in Cold War days, the Philippines will not receive billions of dollars for renting out its bases and, in fact, will end up paying utility and transportation costs of US troops traversing its soil.
The bigger risk, however, is an escalation in disputes, with China bitterly opposing what it sees as an US-led containment strategy in the South China Sea. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.