(Originally published in Asian Conflict Reports, No. 22, January-February 2013)
There is a new balance of power in Asia that challenges the United States as a Pacific power. China has risen economically. It is now the de facto world economic power given the serious fiscal problems in the United States, Japan and Europe. With its rapid development, particularly in the military field, China will soon rise to become a comprehensive global power.
During the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, outgoing President Hu Jintao urged incoming Chinese leaders “to build China into a maritime power”.
Undoubtedly, this goal has tremendous implications for maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas involving Japan over the Senkaku Islands and Southeast Asian claimants (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) over the Spratly Islands. If a worst-case scenario occurs in the East and South China Seas, other powers such as the United States, Australia, Russia, and India will inevitably be pushed into getting involved. This is a grim scenario that all countries in the Asia Pacific want to avoid.
The rise of China as a world power is creating not only regional security anxieties. It also produces strategic uncertainties in the future stability of the Asia Pacific region. Though an American presence in Asia continues to provide a stabilizing role amidst these inconvenient uncertainties, the way that the US currently fashions its role with China is ambiguous, forcing its allies, friends and partners in Asia into a guessing game situation.
As a security ally, the Philippine government welcomes American leadership in Asia to assuage its fear of China’s ascendancy, particularly in the context of China’s growing vigilance in the South China Sea. But the Philippine government is still longing for a clear assurance from the US that it can be relied upon to promote Philippine security interests in the South China Sea – a similar assurance that the US offers to Japan in the East China Sea.
There is no doubt that the American-Philippine security relationship is one of the most important American security relationships in Asia. Through this bilateral security relation, the Philippines became an integral part of American security alliances in Asia during the Cold War, and this continued into the post-Cold War world. Along with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, the Philippines is an important spoke and a strategic partner for American security reengagement in Asia in the 21st century.
Thus, it is in the interest of the United States to develop the operational capability of the Philippines to play a more constructive role in Asian security, particularly against the backdrop of heightened security tensions in the South China Sea. The Philippines will be the weakest link in American security alliances in Asia if it does not have the wherewithal not only to defend its maritime territory but also to contribute to the security of the South China Sea, which is the world’s busiest sea-lane of communication.
The current status of the Philippines as a major non-NATO ally of the US is useless if it does not add value to the rebalancing of new power in Asia. As the US reengages Asia to assert its long-standing leadership as a Pacific power, it also has to pay more serious attention to the needs of its ally, the Philippines, in the development of operational capability to contribute to regional security.
As Asia faces the challenge of China’s rise as a comprehensive power, the US and the Philippines can face the challenge together through a strong alliance. China’s use of its power in the South China Sea will test the efficacy of this alliance.
Strengthening the US-Philippines alliance to rebalance the new power structure in Asia should be part of the security agenda of the second Obama administration.
Rommel C. Banlaoi is the Chairman of the Board and the Executive Director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) and Head of its Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies. An author of a terrorism trilogy: Philippine Security in the Age of Terror (2010), Counter-Terrorism Measures in Southeast Asia (2009) and War on Terrorism in Southeast Asia (2004), Prof. Banlaoi has also authored at least 75 journal articles and book chapters published in the Philippines and abroad on regional security issues, Philippine foreign and defense policy, Philippine electoral politics, terrorism, and the peace process, among others.