The Americans are back – in the Philippines

The aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, which US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited as it was ploughing through the South China Sea. US Navy

By Loke Hoe Yeong

In scenes that would have been unbelievable just two decades ago, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited the Philippines and proclaimed an “enhanced military alliance”, as he made a key visit there on the occasion of a joint military exercise between the two countries.

Unbelievable, because not too long ago in 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to evict the US military from Subic Bay, the sprawling naval complex northwest of Manila. The scenes in the Philippine Senate indicated a sweep of nationalistic fervour that was bent on ending almost a century of American military presence in the Philippines and in the Western Pacific.

There were impassioned speeches in the Senate on the US military presence as a remnant of colonialism and an affront to Philippine sovereignty.

The reason for this change in mood – depending on who you ask, of course – has been China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea over the past few years, which had set it on a collision course with Manila.

Mr Carter had no qualms identifying China as the reason behind the US-Philippines military deals.

The substance of the US-Philippine deals

Already in January this year, the Supreme Court of the Philippines approved a deal with the US to allow it to maintain a naval base on Philippine soil once again.

The deal, which would be in effect for 10 years, gives the US a stronghold less than 500 miles from some of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, where they would help train Philippine forces, construct military infrastructure and deploy planes and ships.

On top of this earlier deal, Mr Carter announced the week before visiting the Philippines that the US would also provide about $40 million in military aid, to be used towards improving the Philippines’s patrol vessels, and to operate unmanned surveillance blimps over the islands in the South China Sea under de facto control of the Philippines.

Bold moves, close encounters between China and US

There were a couple of daring moves during Mr Carter’s visit last week. Carter took a helicopter to board an aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, that was patrolling the South China Sea on Friday (15 April). At about the same time, China’s most senior military commander, General Fan Changlong, visited the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

China has clearly been watching Mr Carter’s visit closely. In fact, the Pentagon had originally scheduled a stopover in Beijing for Mr Carter during his trip to Asia, only to cancel it just a few weeks before.

China made some of its usual statements in reaction to issues of what it sees as the US’s unwarranted intervention in the South China Sea disputes. Beijing described the US’s overtures to the Philippines as a “militarisation” of the situation and “”going back on its words”, in a tit-for-tat name-calling with the US, and alluded to the US’s “Cold War mentality”.

But analysts are divided over how China would respond, going forward, to what is a significant ratcheting up on the part of the US. China is probably genuinely unsure whether to further escalate the situation as a warning and deterrent to the US, or risk a face-losing climb-down.

Another surprise: US-India military cooperation

Ashton Carter also visited India on his trip to Asia last week, with which the US’s military relations have been tightening of late – though short of the intensity as seen with the Philippines. India and the US agreed to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which would give US aircraft and warships access to Indian military bases for refuelling and repair purposes, while India will enjoy similar access to US bases.

This is also a surprising development to some. India was, after all, a champion of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War era. Relations in the 1970s between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the US were frosty on a number of occasions.

India has also been in talks with Japan to upgrade civilian infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a strategically-located archipelago in the Indian Ocean that is part of India.

All these developments suggest that some of the regional powers in Asia are cautiously hedging their bets with the US, though cautious in doing so, in light of the South China Sea disputes that have been raging for the past few years.