Amid the increased security tension in the South China Sea, the Philippines is certainly enhancing its defense alliance with the United States and strengthening its strategic partnership with Japan with the holding of “separate” but apparently related military exercises with the two major powers.
Air and sea battle exercises are being conducted in the western coast of Palawan, which is just within the vicinity of the disputed maritime domain of the Spratlys.
The Philippines’ first batch of military exercise is with the American forces through the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Exercise CARAT) that opened on June 22, 2015. Scheduled to last officially until June 26 (but some activities are expected to end until the end of this month), the current Exercise CARAT is a major milestone in Philippines-US naval exercises as it involves for the first time the USS Fort Worth, a Freedom-class littoral combat ship of the US Navy.
With a length of 118 meters and a speed of 45 knots, the USS Forth Worth is built to be agile and stealthy to efficiently perform anti-access and asymmetric operations in littoral zones like the South China Sea. Relatively small in size, it is, however, a multi-purpose and prolific warship that can effectively operate various missions in shallow waters with greater speed, flexibility, and precision. It can be used for transportation of logistics and personnel and for humanitarian missions, particularly search and rescue operations. More importantly, it can be used for an air-sea battle with its awesome ability to carry 2 Seahawk helicopters and its superb facility to operate missiles and torpedoes.
The involvement of USS Forth Worth in the 2015 Exercise CARAT with the Philippines is creating security anxieties in China considering that this American ship has already encountered several warships of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. The participation of USNS Safeguard and a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft exacerbates China’s security worries considering that these two American military assets have also encountered negative experiences with China in the past.
On May 13, 2015, for example, the Foreign Ministry of China lodged a complaint against the USS Forth Worth for passing through the waters in the Spratlys being claimed by China. But the US government argued that the USS Forth Worth was just performing legitimate Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea. Differences of outlook between the US and China have prompted both countries to adopt the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a non-binding but important agreement that aims to reduce the chance and prevent the occurrence of unintended military battles in contested maritime domains.
The Philippines and the US governments continue to argue that the 2015 Exercise CARAT being conducted in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and its “surrounding international waters” is not meant at targeting China. The exercise only aims to enhance both countries’ sea-readiness capabilities and to improve their navies’ interoperability in the littoral zones of the South China Sea. Thus, the USS Forth Worth is currently conducting “hull-to-hull” drills with three American-made naval ships: the BRP Ramon Alcaraz, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar and the BRP Apolinario Mabini.
But China is wary of the current Philippines-US military exercises because of the ongoing word war between China and the US on land reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter strongly criticized China’s land reclamation activities in the seven reefs in the Spratlys making the South China Sea “the source of tension in the region.” In the same event, however, Admiral Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of General Staff of China’s PLA described the general security situation in the South China Sea as “peaceful and stable”.
China’s discomfort with the 2015 Exercise CARAT is aggravated by the fact that it is being held back-to-back with Japan.
The Philippines’ second batch of naval exercises is with Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF), involving the participation of Japan’s P-3 Orion.
The Philippines’ naval exercise with JMSDF is timed with the commemoration of the 61st anniversary of the Self Defense Forces (SDF) of Japan. The exercise is also held just two weeks after the state visit to Japan of President Benigno Aquino III on June 2-5, 2015.
During the state visit, Aquino and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed the “Japan-Philippines Declaration on Strengthened Strategic Partnership for Advancing the Shared Principles and Goals of Peace, Security, and Growth in the Region and Beyond.” In this Joint Declaration, the Philippines and Japan “reaffirm their strong commitment to ensuring maritime safety and security, including in the South China Sea, which is vital element for peace and prosperity of the region.”
Both leaders also issued the “Action Plan for Strengthening of the Strategic Partnership” where they agreed to implement capacity building assistance and joint exercise and training. Specifically, the Japanese government reiterates its commitment to continue its capacity-building assistance to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to enhance maritime domain awareness. Japan is providing the PCG 10 brand new patrol vessels through its new security assistance program.
Fulcrum of rivalry
With the increased involvement of US and Japan in a growing web of military exercises in the South China Sea, the WPS is also increasingly becoming the fulcrum of major power rivalries.
From a bilateral territorial and maritime conflict between China and the Philippines and a multilateral security concern between China and claimant states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the South China Sea has no doubt become an arena of major power competition.
Thus, the South China Sea dispute is no longer just a sovereignty conflict between the Philippines and China.
The South China Sea has become the arena for power projection for the United States (not only as a world’s superpower but specifically as a Pacific power) and Japan as an Asian power, and China as a rising global power in transition.
As such, the Philippines, as a small state, gets inevitably entangled in this complex power struggle among big states.
There is an old saying, “when elephants fight, the ants get trampled upon.” – Rappler.com
Rommel Banlaoi is a Senior Faculty at the Deparment of International Studies, Miriam College and Director of the Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies (CINSS)/Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR).