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US shows naval force amid Asia arms buildup

A few weeks ahead of the visit of President Barack Obama to four of the United States’ Asian allies, including the Philippines, on April 28-29, to sign an enhanced defense agreement that would give the United States wider access to Philippine military bases, the US Seventh Fleet sailed into Manila Bay on March 17 in  a show of force to impress upon its allies its commitment to defend them against China’s aggressive encroachments on disputed territories in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

On the bridge of the USS Blue Ridge, Vice Adm. Robert Thomas Jr., commander of the Seventh Fleet, reiterated the US commitment to protecting freedom of navigation and international law in the Asia-Pacific—historically a region long dominated by the US military. Specifically, he cited the increasing collaboration between the Seventh Fleet and the “growing” Philippine Navy, one of the weakest navies in maritime Southeast Asia, in efforts to ensure security and stability in the region.

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Today, he said, “as strong as our relationship already is, we’re always looking for opportunities for enhanced rotational presence of US forces to improve the training and capability of our militaries, especially both of our navies.”

Thomas said ships from the fleet would be “visiting here regularly for a long time in the future,” within the framework of the US defense rebalance. He cited the 62-year-old Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty, saying that the Philippines remained “a key in our efforts to ensure the stability and prosperity in the Western Pacific.”

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Asked about recent incidents involving Chinese harassment of Philippine small military outposts in the Second Thomas Shoal, or Ayungin Shoal, in the South China Sea, part of the Seventh Fleet’s area of responsibility, Thomas referred to US policy determined by Washington that peaceful dialogue should be the way to go toward a resolution.

“Our position is that we want them to be settled without coercion,” he said. “We want that dialogue between parties that are in a territorial dispute. We insist on international waters being the international commons, and that we all navigate according to rules, standards, laws, and international norms, and with that, that all those nations literally take care of each other on the high seas.”

What if the Chinese Coast Guard, an armed ship, takes it upon itself the task of blocking other claimants’ fishing vessels from fishing in disputed waters, enforcing Chinese maritime laws, and using maps drawn by Beijing? These issues were not addressed during Admiral Thomas’ interview with reporters on board the USS Blue Ridge.

Obviously, the guns, guided missiles and helicopters on this floating armada that is the Seventh Fleet resonate louder than words of diplomacy of what the US Navy can do to enforce Pax Americana in Asia Pacific, just in case the People’s Liberation Army’s generals become too troublesome and cannot be stopped from coercing China’s maritime neighbors in territorial disputes in Beijing’s version of Pax Sinica.

On Friday, the USS Howard, a guided missile destroyer from the US Pacific Fleet, arrived in Manila on a “routine” port of call. What’s the point of all these show of force, if they are not going to be used to deter Chinese maritime territorial expansion?

Credible defense

The increasing visibility and presence of US warships in Philippine waters over the past few months may have given heart to Manila to file last month its memorial seeking United Nations arbitration in its territorial dispute with China, but Philippine officials have no illusions that their 4,000-page memorandum arguing their case is not sufficient to halt what they called “creeping invasion” of Chinese paramilitary forces in the South China Sea. The officials are aware the Philippines needs military hardware, supplied by the United States and other Philippine allies, such as Japan and South Korea. Manila has to beef up its armed forces to build a credible defense against China’s burgeoning military might.

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The buildup of Philippine military capability has swept Manila in an Asian arms race spurred by aggressive Chinese intrusions in disputed territories. On March 27, the Department of National Defense signed agreements to buy $528 million worth of military aircraft from South Korea and Canada amid heightening territorial disputes with China.

Agence France-Presse reported that Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the purchases had given life to improving the Air Force’s capability after four decades of stagnancy. Under the contracts, Korea Aerospace Industries will deliver 12 FA-50 jets worth P18.9 billion in just over three years. The Philippines has also completed P4 billion to P8 billion worth of contracts with Canadian Commercial Corp. and Canada’s Bell Helicopters to build eight military helicopters.

The agreements are part of the Philippines’ P75-billion initiative to upgrade its armed forces, particularly units deployed to patrol disputed territory in the South China Sea. According to the defense department, the acquisition of 12 FA-50 combat aircraft from South Korea is the biggest military procurement under the present administration. Under the military upgrade program, the government is reported to have acquired two refurbished frigates from the US Coast Guard.

Worrying arms race

On April 3. the Financial Times newspaper (London) reported that while everyone knows about China’s arms buildup, Beijing’s defense capability has in fact risen eightfold in 20 years. In that time, it has become comfortably the world’s second-biggest spender on the military. In 2012, China accounted for nearly 10 percent of global military expenditure, the FT reports, citing the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which monitors defense spending. That was more than Russia and the UK combined, although only a quarter of what the United States had laid out on its armed forces.

Less understood is the effect China’s military buildup is having on Asia on the whole, the FT wrote. In 2012, for the first time, Asian states spent more on defense than European nations. From India to South Korea and from Vietnam to Malaysia, governments in the region are ramping up defense spending. Even pacifist Japan, which for years has been cutting its defense outlays, has begun to reverse the trend as it reorients its defense posture toward what it perceives is a growing Chinese threat.

The arms buildup in Asia has “another, more worrying dimension,” writes the FT, citing what Desmond Ball, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, called “action-reaction dynamics,” or to put it more bluntly, “an old fashioned arms race.” A new book on the South China Sea, “Asia’s Cauldron,” by Robert Kaplan, an academic, calls the arms race “one of the most underreported stories in the elite media in decades.”

According to the FT, “There are many factors driving this arms race. Most important is the growing strength of China, which is leading countries such as India, Vietnam and the Philippines to think harder about defense.”

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TAGS: arms buildup, Asia, China, Military, navy, Philippines, US
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