During the Cold War, the military alliance between the United States and the Philippines, embodied in the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, was instrumental in deterring the spread of Soviet communism in Asia. This once-strong relationship, however, has been essentially moribund since U.S. air and naval forces departed their bases in the Philippines in 1992. The lack of defense cooperation between old allies has created a power vacuum that China has been exploiting. Since 1995, for example, with little reaction from the Clinton Administration, China has built and expanded structures on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island chain, about 150 miles from Philippine territory but over 800 miles away from the Chinese mainland. The Clinton Administration needs to tell China clearly that such actions undermine peace in Southeast Asia. It also needs to exercise leadership to ensure that the U.S.-Philippine alliance serves both Philippine and U.S. security needs. One way to do this is to prepare to assist the Philippine military's re-equipment program in the context of renewed U.S.-Philippine alliance cooperation.
Since the mid-1970s, China has been seizing long-disputed territories and resources of the South China Sea: islands in the Paracel group and the Spratly group to the south. It is clear that over the next decade China intends to develop facilities in this area that could assist military operations. China already has a large airstrip on Woody Island in the Paracels that places current and future combat aircraft within striking distance of the Philippines and Spratlys. And in the Spratlys, as seen most recently on Mischief Reef, China is building larger outposts that could support helicopters and ships. China's air and naval forces already are superior to those of the Philippines, and in the not-too-distant future could challenge U.S. naval forces as well.
This poses a challenge to a critical U.S. interest: maintaining freedom of the seas. About 70 percent of Japan's and South Korea's petroleum passes through the sea lane between Mischief Reef and the Philippines. The loss of access to this sea lane could damage these economies, which, in turn, would threaten the economic health of Asia and the United States.
China's recent assertiveness has been encouraged by a power vacuum for which the United States and the Philippines share responsibility. The United States has long held to a strictly neutral stance regarding the conflicting claims to the South China Sea. Even in the face of provocative Chinese actions, the United States has not been critical. U.S.-Philippine military cooperation, moreover, has fallen into abeyance since the 1992 departure of U.S. forces from their Philippine bases, and during most of the ensuing years there has been insufficient interest in the United States or the Philippines in exploring the question of rebuilding defense cooperation.
The Philippine view has evolved significantly, however, following the election last year of Joseph Estrada to the Presidency. Although Estrada voted to end the U.S. bases as a Senator, he has campaigned recently to convince the Philippine Senate to pass a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that is necessary to establish the legal rights of U.S. forces operating in the Philippines. Especially in the wake of China's growing presence on Mischief Reef, Estrada shows commendable leadership in taking steps toward rebuilding an old alliance.
REBUILDING U.S.-PHILIPPINE DEFENSE TIES
A key priority for the Clinton Administration this year should be the rebuilding of defense cooperation with the Philippines, mindful of previous mistakes in the U.S.-Philippine military relationship. Future defense cooperation needs to be grounded in common goals and also has to avoid creating new Philippine dependency on U.S. aid. The U.S. goal should be to offer initial aid in the form of surplus defense equipment to help the Philippines to build a self-defense capacity it can afford to support. To rebuild defense cooperation with the Philippines, the United States should:
Seek agreement on security goals. When the governments in Manila and Washington did not share strategic goals in the past, the result was erosion of political support for their defense relationship. To rebuild military ties, it is critical that each side recognize the other's needs. The Philippines needs some help in re-equipping its defenses, while the United States needs access to Philippines bases in order to respond to potential threats in Asia and the Persian Gulf.
Declare that China's activities in the disputed islands represent a threat to regional security. Although the Clinton Administration need not change the long-standing U.S. policy of not recognizing any one of the conflicting claims to the South China Sea, it can and should identify China's actions as a threat to stability and to a peaceful resolution of the disputed claims. The Administration should call on China to dismantle its structures on Mischief Reef.
Assemble a military aid package for the Philippines. The Philippines is in serious need of help in the task of re-equipping its defense forces. It is in the interest of the United States to assist in this process. With a respectable self-defense capability, the Philippines is more likely in the future to be an effective U.S. partner in defending Asian sea lanes. Should the Philippine Senate approve the VFA, the Clinton Administration should quickly assemble a package of surplus U.S. combat aircraft, surveillance aircraft, ships, and radar to offer the Philippines. This aid should not result in any significant new costs for U.S. taxpayers if it is stipulated that the Philippines will pay for maintenance and operating costs.
Following the departure of U.S. forces in 1992, the U.S-Philippine defense relationship grew moribund. Inattention to this relationship has been costly: A power vacuum has been created that China is exploiting. The United States and the Philippines should recall their much longer heritage of sacrifice for the defense of freedom and begin to rebuild a sustainable defense relationship that can better deter conflict in Southeast Asia.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr., is the former Director of The Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.