US-Philippines flex collective powers to save Spratlys - vs dragon

From waging a joint bloody war against Islamic terrorists, the United States and Philippines now find themselves shifting to another battle front: checking China's provocations on the high seas.

In what could be na overture to an imminent face-off with China, American and Filipino naval forces will launch "war games" on June 28-July 8 off the coast of Palawan province, west of Manila, near the hotly contested and potentially oil and gas rich Spratly islands in the West Philippine Sea - South China Sea.

The US will deploy three warships - USS Chung-Hoon, USS Howard and USNS Safeguard, while the Philippines will pitch in four US-made battleships. They will be backed by hundreds of combat-ready American and Filipino marines.

The joint military maneuvers, part of the US-Philippine military alliance, come amid reports that China will test next week its first-ever Russian-designed Ukraine made aircraft carrier called Varyag prior to its formal mobilization later this year.

China, seen by many Filipinos as an emerging neighborhood bully, had earlier sent its biggest maritime vessel to the Spratlys in what critics here described as "gunboat diplomacy" to assert its "historic" claims to the island chain following a verbal spat with rival claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In reaction, the Philippines sent its biggest, oldest and lone warship, the US-made RP Rajah Humabon, to patrol the country's 250-nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which Manila now refers to as the "West Philippine Sea".

"If they attack us, we will fight back," Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Eduardo Oban said, referring to repeated Chinese intrusions into the Philippines-claimed portion of the Spratlys. AFP troops have in retaliation dismantled markers and buoys bearing Chinese characters planted by Beijing within the Philippines' claimed EEZ.

The AFP has recorded at least seven incidents of Chinese incursions into its claimed Spratly Island areas since February, prompting Manila to lodge diplomatic protests with Beijing. The government has announced plans to elevate soon its complaints to the United Nations.

On March 2, Chinese ships harassed a Philippine vessel exploring oil in the Reed Bank located 80 miles (129 kilometers) off Palawan and within the Philippines' EEZ, but 576 miles (927 kilometers) from China. "Why should there be a dispute if we are conforming to international law?," Philippine president Benigno Aquino told a news briefing about the incident.

Manila's mild saber rattling followed Washington's assurance that it would honor its mutual defense treaty, which both countries signed in 1951. The treaty mandates both sides to aid each other in case of external attacks.

"The Philippines and the United States are strategic treaty allies. We are partners. We will continue to consult and work with each other on all issues, including the South China Sea and Spratly islands," US ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas recently said.

The treaty will be reviewed during a top-level meeting of US and Philippine defense and military officials in August this year in Hawaii. Atop the agenda will be China's perceived as belligerent moves to press its claims to the Spratlys and how the US and its allies will in future respond.

Also expected to be discussed at the Hawaii meeting will be US access to its former Philippines-based military bases at Subic and Clark which the US abandoned in 2001 after Manila refused to renew a lease deal with Washington.

Now economic zones, Subic and Clark boast US-built ports and airports which could be of strategic importance both amid mounting tensions with China over the Spratly Islands and Washington's wider aim to contain China's strategic rise.

Though Manila remains hopeful the territorial row with China can be solved through diplomacy, it's not taking chances either. President Benigno Aquino's government has recently stepped up its acquisition of armaments under the US foreign military sales program, in what could be seen as a sign of an impending arms race among Spratly claimants.

In August this year, the US Coast Guard will deliver to Manila a large and modern Hamilton-class cutter patrol craft to boost the Philippine Navy's maritime patrols. The vessel, which boasts a wide array of state-of-the art interdiction capabilities, forms part of the US commitment to help modernize the 125,000-strong AFP, which has lagged behind its Asian counterparts in terms of equipment.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario is this week in Washington on invitation of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to lobby for more American vessels and equipment to beef up the AFP's external defense posture.

Other items on del Rosario's shopping list reportedly include frigates, fighter jets, patrol helicopters with sensors, search-and-rescue vessels, transport aircraft and strategic sea-lift ships.

Aquino earlier warned visiting Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie of a possible arms race should tensions over the conflicting Spratlys claims worsen. He noted that while the AFP is currently ill-equipped to match China's military might, this could force Manila's hand to beef up its armaments, given China's repeated intrusions into the Philippine-claimed portions of the Spratlys.

"We may not have the capabilities now, but that might force us to increase our capabilities also," he said.

In turn, Liang assured Aquino that China wanted to resolve the Spratlys dispute through peaceful and diplomatic means. In their talks, Aquino and Liang pledged to avoid any "unilateral actions" that could inflame tensions over rival claims.

Stronger strategic ties with the US carries certain political risks for Aquino, who earlier carefully balanced his policy between China and the US. As expected, leftist groups have already assailed US involvement in Manila's diplomatic spat with Beijing over the Spratlys.


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