Obama’s Asia-Pivot Makes Conflict More Likely: Philippines Edition

John Glaser, July 25, 2013
US Navy fleet in Asia-Pacific

US Navy fleet in Asia-Pacific

One of the predictable consequences of Obama’s Asia-Pivot is that, by boosting support to all of China’s U.S.-allied neighbors, those countries are emboldened to stand up to China as an enemy and China is likewise emboldened to counter the onslaught. Needless to say, this makes conflict more likely.

The Washington Post:

China’s most daring adversary in Southeast Asia is, by many measurements, ill-suited for a fight. The Philippines has a military budget one-fortieth the size of Beijing’s, and its navy cruises through contested waters in 1970s hand-me-downs from the South Vietnamese.

From that short-handed position, the Philippines has set off on a risky mission to do what no nation in the region has managed to do: thwart China in its drive to control the vast waters around it.

So, tiny little Philippines is angling for a fight with China despite a military budget one-fortieth the size of Beijing’s. Are we surprised?

Throughout 2012, the U.S. increased its military and economic support for the Philippines government while at the same time expanding the American military presence in the country. This at a time when the Obama administration publicly pledges to support any U.S. ally that is threatened by China and vocally chastises Beijing for subtly staking claims to contested maritime territories. Undoubtedly, Manila got the right message.

But the militaristic response to 21st century China was not obvious to all Filipinos. “Analysts say the Philippines’ strategy, in standing up to Asia’s powerhouse, is just as likely to backfire as succeed,” the Post continues. “But it provides a crucial test case as smaller countries debate whether to deal with China as a much-needed economic partner, a dangerous maritime aggressor, or both.”

And there is the rub. Conceivably, China and its neighbors could be getting along great through further economic trade and interdependence. The same goes for the U.S.-China relationship, but Washington has instead aimed to turn peaceful economic exchange into a casus belli – and encouraged its smaller Asian allies to do the same.

Related: See my recent piece in The Washington Times, The Asia Pivot: Making an Enemy of China.




22 Responses to “Obama’s Asia-Pivot Makes Conflict More Likely: Philippines Edition”

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  2. Really? Philippines is the one itching for a fight? Its China that's running a creeping invasion, grabbing every rock within the Philipines 200 mile EEZ. Somebody needs to stand up to an evil Goliath. If China wants respect, act like a good neighbor. Stop being a Bully!

  3. China is a warmonger. They know they have the military power in the asia. That’s why they bully smaller nations.

  4. This is just a way for the Filipino upper class to keep down the poor for another 30 years.

  5. Asians are still fighting while Europe and Americas are united front in Economically and politically! Wished they realized and not make the mistakes of European caused so many war among themselves. Europe survived but if there is a war in Asia that would be a Nuclear one. I believe Third World War will start from Asia.

  6. The Philippines didn't ask for aggressive Chinese expansion into it's EEZ. China is behaving like a imperialist power from 120 years ago and must be stopped.

  7. stupid sons a bittchheess in washington

  8. US HAS NO F RIGHT to be in asia–period–get the f out–now–

  9. i hope so–and then washington will be vaporized–thank you jesus

  10. People should realize how important peace means in this side of the world, China as the second largest economy in the world and has by all means necessary military and economic strength should respect its neighbors as sovereign states and respect international laws and processes in asserting any disputed territories big or small especially if they are a signatory of it. This story in fact is history repeating itself, to any advance civilization in the past there is always a need to expand to provide its people the things they need for more growth. Greed! Power! Rule!

  11. "Needless to say, this makes conflict more likely."

    On the contrary, it makes conflict LESS likely. It's called CONTAINMENT, and it WORKED against the Soviet Union.

  12. Interesting that 'libertarian' anti-war dot com blog site is claimed to be against aggressive war, imperialism and assault on freedoms.

    Now why then is the apparent twisted perspective in this article that the militaristic-creeping, unreasonably hawkish, aggressive-action-threatening and imperialistic-behaving PRC Gov (vis-a-vis SCS policy and Philippines in particular) is suddenly the perceived 'victim' of the 'onslaught' from tiny 1/40th-sized Philippines!?!

    Is it merely, because anyone linked to the diplomatic support of US in a disagreement with another country must be definition be the aggressor and bad guy itching for a fight and punch in the nose!?! How seriously ridiculous!

    I'm truly surprised at the blatant lack of critical analysis put into this particular blog posting and rather simplistic logic used to discuss the 'dispute'…a counter-intuitive position apparently taken (possibly prematurely) by self-proclaimed libertarians otherwise stating to defend certain principles.

    Scratching head and hoping for more critical, balanced and objective discussion on this topic.

  13. It's arguably not intended as actual 'Containment'. The 'containment' term is rather the perception PRC Gov is portraying in media releases, probably with the goal to gain sympathy and understanding for the need (being the victim of an onslaught) to be more active in defending it's 'indisputable sovereignty' in the SCS. It's a circular logic in truth.

    More likely and likely a bit more complex, "It's" called: a natural, predictable, justified counter-policy response and stand developed out of the raw alarm over an accelerated, unilateral, absolutist and even outright threatening hardline policy.

    The main goal by Philippines Gov however, seems to be finding a resolute diplomatic resolution of what it considers flat out unacceptable claim to 'indisputable sovereignty' of clearly disputed overlapping areas of strategic interest. Sounds pretty fair and reasonable in all reality.

  14. Read the WaPo article first before accusing Glaser of pro-imperialist sentiments. The SCS dispute is not one in which China is the lone aggressor against everyone else, or where China had expanded its claims in recent years. The claim lines from several countries overlap throughout the region, and those from China were drawn in 1947, by the ROC (Taiwan), which the PRC inherited when it came to power in 1949. These claims have not changed in at least 66 years!

    An argument can certainly be made that the Chinese claim lines are excessive and should be contested, but let's not forget that the entire country of the Philippines was once a US possession, conquered by force, and some in the US (and the Philippines) continue to see it as part of the American backyard. Judging by that imperial yard stick, China's SCS claim lines are positively wimpy.

    In any case, enforcing one's existing claims is very different from expanding the latter; this distinction is frequently ignored by media reports on the subject, even though it is quite crucial in determining whether China's actions are defensive or aggressive in nature. Throughout PRC's six decades in power, it had fought a number of border wars to defend claim lines that it had inherited from ROC (and the Imperial court before that), which the prior regimes were unable to defend. It has now settled all land border disputes with its neighbors with the exception of India, mostly through diplomacy. If you compare PRC's land borders today with those claimed by the ROC, you'll see that PRC is considerably smaller than the ROC. This is hardly a sign of uninhibited imperial ambitions!

    Per the WaPo article, China, Vietnam and the Philippines had already agreed to set aside their sovereignty dispute and begin a multi-lateral joint exploration of the sea-bed in the contested area, when the Philippines pulled out of the agreement after the current more hawkish government came to power. So the recent increase in tension is indeed the direct consequence of the more aggressive stance taken by the Philippines. Remember the recent shooting incident involving the Filipino Coast Guard? The Victim was Taiwanese, and Taiwan (ROC) literally has the exact same claim lines as the PRC!

    Balanced and objective discussion is indeed missing on this topic, because China-bashing is a favorite sport for both the left and the right. US support for the Philippines has nothing to do with inherent US love for the Filipinos, but everything to do with the US desire to remain the supreme military power in the SCS. The Philippines is but a second rate pawn in the US chess set, but the Filipinos think they can take advantage of the situation and make their problems America's problems (tail wagging the dog). In this context, Glaser's critical view of the situation is entirely consistent with the Libertarian anti-war principle. It's people like 'From Mars' who (assuming he/she is a Libertarian) should be questioning their own received wisdom and maybe do a little more critical reading on this topic. The only people who could cheer the Filipinos on without experiencing cognitive dissonance are Samantha Power Democrats and John McCain/ Lindsey Graham Republicans.

  15. Excellent, couldn't have put it any better. One thing to add is that all this just puts more pressure on the PRC leadership to behave in such a way as to assuage growing nationalist sentiment and the aggressive militarists. If the Phillipinnes took the more quite route the PRC could do the same, but they have to be seen as responding to perceived slights against the Chinese nation.

  16. Thanks for that thoughtful reply, Marangu.

    That's the deeper and broader level of discussion and analysis I was indeed hoping to find in the commentary section of this otherwise rather brief, biased and simplified blog entry. In fact, in my opinion, your comment should have been the original blog entry itself as it contains far more insight and information up for debate into the complex 'dispute'. So no offense to the author of the blog entry, J Glaser, but I only felt as if his overly-simplified and overly-brief article was summarized all-too illogically in a grossly biased conclusion that; 'Philippines and PRC could be getting along much better, but it's mostly the USG which is the problem'. That was the lack of critical thinking and deeper analysis, without supporting his conclusion, that I was protesting…more so than the clearly biased opinion.

    Now with respect to the relevant SCS 'dispute' points you bring up (note dispute and not indisputable sovereignty), I'd like to discuss those further if you wish.

    First and most, I fully agree with you that Philippines Gov is merely 'CONTESTING' (as opposed to containing) and has a right to contest PRC Gov's most recent and latest unilateral and aggressive stance and perceived push for hegemony over the disputed areas in the SCS/West Philippine Sea region of the Sunda Seafloor plate of South-East Asia.

    That should be the main focus and main issue and nothing more. Don't make the discussion more complex than it should be.

    The Philippine Gov is simply contesting perceived illegitimate, 'unilateral' self-proclaimed 'indisputable sovereignty' claims put into active policy from July of 2010. That's it. That is not a provocation by a Gov of it's people to contest such an aggressive, absolutist, seemingly imperialistic policy and claim over disputed territories – many of which fall solely within Philippine's EEZ!

    I mean, even France, God bless their soul (those sneaky little bastards, joke), made unilateral claim on Spratly area from the late 19th century and placed the flag in 1933 on behalf of Vietnam sovereignty! That pre-dated RoC's innovative and clever self-proclaimed 11-dash-line scheme by 13 years!! A little late to the party, no!?!

    C'mon, let's get real here; the USG is calling on a peaceful and fair multilateral resolution to the OVERLAPPING dispute within the SCS/WPS. Period. In fact, this can actually be argued as one of the most pragmatic, legit and proper US Foreign policy stances world wide today! (Sad to say).

    Please, let's discuss to oppose PRC Gov's very unfortunate 'recent', unilateral implementation of gunboat diplomacy (and peace dictated by the barrel of a cannon, 40x stronger than Philippines) in the disputed area in question. PRC can call Sansha's role whatever they wish, more power to PRC Gov…but please, let's discuss how the truly 'Disputable sovereignty' of this area can indeed be multilaterally agreed upon, shared and mutually exploited, on equal footing; via internationally recognized legality. Let's hope the Multilateral conference later this year can begin that path forward.

  17. Thank you for a thoughtful response as well! You are far better informed than I initially gave you credit for based on your first comment, so please accept my apologies for the snarky tone at the end of my own comment above.

    Personally, I think discussions like ours are a bit pointless, because these facts are known to the principals and still have zero impact on their actions.

    I really don't have much to add except the following, in response to a few points you raised:

    Asian nations did not view fixed borders as an important concern prior to the arrival of the colonial Europeans. The stronger nations treated their neighbors as either tributaries or enemies to be conquered; hence there was no need to accurately demarcate national boundaries between them. Much of the territorial disputes we see today between Asian countries are the direct product of the arbitrary lines drawn by colonial powers during the 19th Century "Great Game". Had the French not started the ball rolling in 1933 by planting their flags all over the SCS, perhaps China wouldn't have felt threatened enough to do the same in 1947, when it finally gained enough confidence to stand up to the Europeans?

    The EEZ is a modern invention, universally adopted only in the 1980s. The claim lines in question predated the EEZ by decades; therefore they cannot be blamed for violating the latter. However, it is certainly a legitimate item for negotiation, and undoubtedly was.

    As for China being 40x stronger than the Philippines, that is hardly China's fault? Where is it written that the more powerful party in a dispute is automatically in the wrong and must yield to the weaker party "on equal footing"?! Why is it unfair for China to back up their claims with a few of their own gunboats, but entirely fair for the Philippines to borrow the US 7th Fleet (let's face it, the US can throw its weight around only because it is ???x stronger than everyone else in world, and will never allow itself to be "on equal footing" with anyone, ever) to pressure the Chinese to yield to their wishes? You can't simultaneously condemn the Chinese for backing up their carrot with a stick while implicitly condoning the same when it's done by the Philippines and the US! (again, the unfortunate Taiwanese fishing boat captain didn't die from the kindness meted out to him by the Filipino Coast Guard).

    Of course, instigating conflicts in order to 'prevent violence' is what we do all the time these days, and Libertarians seem to be the only ones who have a problem with it.

    Perform this thought exercise for a minute and see whether you still think this is a fairness and peace-promoting "equal footing" issue: Assume China was a strong US ally in the region, and the Philippines is ruled by a government that just gave asylum to Snowden. Given the exact same maritime boundary dispute, which side do you think the US – excuse me, "The International Community" – would choose to support?

    I agree with you fully that mutual understanding and mutual respect are essential for settling these (largely inherited) disputes. However, I am rather pessimistic that they can happen in the current political climate. China is the last (only?) "bad guy" left that can justify our military expenditure (jobs! jobs! jobs!), so anything that can raise the tension just enough in that part of the world to keep things interesting for us is always welcome. There are simply too many powerful people benefiting from a lack of mutual understanding and respect for there to be a genuine desire and effort to achieve them.

  18. [...] From Antiwar: [...]

  19. OK thanks, I too appreciate your effort made in discussion, regardless of the disagreement between differing views.

    However, you'll have to forgive me for being a guy that disagrees with a fair portion of your views on this particular subject ;)

    Firstly, I'll fully disagree that 'our' discussion is pointless (as you said), due to the powers-that-be simply not taking any such discourse and debate into consideration. To the contrary, I feel that if enough publicly out-spoken viewpoints were truly adamant on taking these issues to a higher and more HONEST level, that some of the cheap shots and blatant hardline rhetoric would and could be more easily 'shot down' when the two or more sides actually came to the table. At the conference, one could literally come right out and say: "Please, let's cut the crap…the public does not accept what you/we unilaterally claim (or threaten), so we truly should be more responsible representatives in finding a more fair, internationally recognizable resolution"…etc.

    As far as French SCS claims go dating back to the late 1800s and asserted in 1933, vs RoC 11-division claims, followed by PRC 9-division version of said claims…I would fully agree (or disagree if I misunderstood you) that neither UNILATERAL, absolutist territorial claims would (or should) hold water, vis-a-vis any current-day Internationally-recognized legal status. Bring such controversial, tension-creating unilateral claims before an internationally recognized body/tribunal for legal judgement, if one seeks credibility in asserting such imperial, I mean legal sovereignty over said disputed territory. No?

    As for your point about PRC being 40x stronger than Philippines, or USA being this or that much relatively stronger than anyone…I would concur with your point that such relative strength bonus points should NOT be weighted as such, in any hypothetical 'might equals right' policy-making in the current modern day and age. Thus; equal footing, based on internationally recognized legal decision making processes, should be how two or more parties come to the bilateral/multilateral table. And of course, any intimidation along the path by any side should definitely be 'contested' and called out.

    I'm sure Libertarians would agree to this seemingly-just process and interpretation. At least I would.

    As for your 'thought exercise'; very interesting concept and I especially appreciate that form of material injected into any discussion/debate to keep things in better perspective. Although, my sincere answer would have to be: that under your conditions given in hypothetical scenario, USG would actually be WRONG if she hypocritically supported PRC Gov in the 'same unilateral SCS disputes', regardless of Snowden being thrown into the equation. USG would be wrong, just as I would Equally disagree with USG if it supported Philippines in making similar 'unreasonably hardline' and hawkish claims of sovereignty of entire Spratly Islands!

    In conclusion, USG should not be pressing hard in rhetoric or action on appearing 'anti-PRC' either in general or on specific cases. Both countries have too much invested, too many existing bonds and too much necessary cooperation for our real global challenges ahead, coming this century. Rather, strategic ambiguity would be sufficient and predictable, when applying policy relations with friendly states which unfortunately face hardline challenges by PRC Gov today (and hopefully not for long). Regardless, other countries, such as Philippines in THIS particular case, should be fully justified to protest and contest if being outright threatened, or subjected to another's unilateral claim, that undermines internationally recognized access to an equally-weighted dispute process. Yes, that would/should be the Libertarian support here, too.

  20. from mars
    *C'mon, let's get real here; the USG is calling on a peaceful and fair multilateral resolution to the OVERLAPPING dispute within the SCS/WPS. Period. In fact, this can actually be argued as one of the most pragmatic, legit and proper US Foreign policy stances world wide today! (Sad to say). *

    uncle sham [1]
    is in scs, ecs to *make peace*…..
    seriously, what planet r u on ?

    [1] http://dissidentvoice.org/2013/06/worlds-most-evi

  21. Hey Denk –

    Arguably, NOBODY is in SCS/WPS for sole purpose to *make peace*. I think your observation and guess would be accurate there.

    What I mentioned was purely that US's official position is that Philippines and PRC Gov need to make *peaceful and fair* resolution (utilizing recognized law as basis) to their disputed situation. Nothing anit-libertarian about that policy, my friend.

    And I'm especially sure you were not also implying that one govt in particular should have the right (or green light) to unilaterally threaten or otherwise intimidate militarily another party to the dispute?? (as a means to coax a bilaterally agreed solution?)

    Dissent is not a crime!

  22. *What I mentioned was purely that US's official position is that Philippines and PRC Gov need to make *peaceful and fair* resolution *

    we'r accustomed to the likes of clinton, bush, obama, mccan freely giving out sermons about *law n order* with a straight face, those are psychopaths, embarrassment is an alien concept to those critters !
    otoh, its amazing to hear *liberatarians* quoting such craps with a straight face !
    bravo !

    *Dissent is not a crime! *

    ever heard about *supreme international crimes* ? http://dissidentvoice.org/2008/06/getting-away-wi