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Asia's Game of Thrones
A Sea Change in the South China Sea?

The Philippines is one of China’s biggest counter-claimants in the South China Sea, where it holds tenuous control over several groups of remote islands (like some in the Spratly chain), and claims rightful ownership of many more without controlling them (like the Scarborough Shoal).

Until now, Filipino efforts to thwart China’s program of intimidation in the South China Sea have consisted largely of ineffectual appeals for international legal arbitration. The best it has been able to do to change the facts on the ground has been positioning troops in the rusted out carcasses of wrecked ships near disputed territory and hoping that China would not forcibly remove them. Earlier in April it emerged that China is building a runway big enough for military aircraft on the disputed Fiery Cross Reef, a huge point of contention. Last week brought news that China is likely building a second one nearby.

This week, things seem to have taken a turn for the better for the Philippines. Right after Manila loudly urged it to do so (with behind-the-scenes help from Indonesia and Vietnam), the ten-member diplomatic Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) came out with a fiery condemnation—fiery by the standards of multilateral organizations in any case—of Beijing’s renewed maritime expansionism. Beijing, feigning indignation, said that it was “extremely concerned” by the joint statement. “On this issue China has exercised extreme restraint,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said. “China resolutely opposes individual countries making insinuations about China for their own selfish interests and taking hostage the China-ASEAN relationship.”

Meanwhile, following major joint U.S.-Filipino military exercises, Washington and Manila reportedly made a deal that would allow U.S. troops to use bases in the Philippines for new rotational troop deployments. Stars and Stripes has the story:

U.S. forces would have access to at least eight bases in the Philippines — including two near a hotly contested island group claimed by China — under a new bilateral defense agreement, according to a Philippine media report.

Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gregorio Catapang told Manila’s ABS-CBN News that during an October meeting, he and Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear identified eight bases that the U.S. would send troop rotations through. The rotations would happen in accordance with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a bilateral document signed last year that gives the U.S. military the most access it has had since the Philippines ordered the U.S. to leave its former bases in the 1990s.

U.S. access to Philippine bases, which Catapang said wasn’t necessarily limited to the eight he specified, is contingent upon a Philippine court ruling over the constitutionality of the EDCA. […]

Two of the specified bases, Antonio Bautista Air Base and Naval Station Carlito Cunanan in Palawan, would give the U.S. rapid access to the Spratly Islands…

At the same time, Japan was rolling out new rules that remove proscriptions on supplying U.S. forces. According to The Washington Times:

[The new guidelines] will also let Japan defend its allies against attacks and remove geographic limitations so the Japanese can assist U.S. forces worldwide, including resupplying U.S. ships with bullets or fuel that will be used in combat operations.

If anything will influence China’s strategic calculus, it will be the United States positioning its forces near some of the more remote areas of confrontation. And Beijing’s South China Sea opponents working together with a Japan unencumbered by its past will go even further. Taken together, the moves could end up being the seeds of a harder-edged check on Beijing’s territorial ambitions. China has other ambitions and other worries besides control of territory in its coastal waters. So it’s just possible that ASEAN and the more powerful of the interested parties’ show of teeth will refocus Beijing towards its more constructive goals.

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  • Blackbeard

    China will call our bluff and Obama will fold. Look at what is happening right now with Iran in the Straights of Hormuz. China is certainly watching what is happening in the ME with interest and amusement.

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