2paragraphs: President Obama will visit the Philippines this month, where he is expected to sign an agreement on US-Philippine defense cooperation. The agreement is part of the administration’s Asia “re-balancing” in the face of China’s growing power, and comes just as China’s defense minister is calling on the US to “restrain” its allies in the region. Americans tend to consider China more of an economic threat than a military one: what is the American goal of a “rebalanced” Asia? And how important to this is a larger American presence in the South China Sea?
Mira Rapp-Hooper: The goal of the “rebalance” is to broaden US cooperation with Asia, with the aim of contributing to stability, peace, and prosperity in the region. When it was announced in 2011, the “Pivot” – a geostrategic shift in emphasis as opposed to an abrupt policy change– became associated with a stronger US military presence because it included a new, but actually very modest, Marine deployment to Darwin, Australia. The rebalance, however, was always intended to be a whole-of-government approach that fosters deeper American engagement in the region after a decade in which US foreign policy had been heavily focused on Iraq and Afghanistan. It has included, for example, economic initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and diplomatic efforts like increased cooperation with ASEAN.
The US-Philippines agreement contributes to the rebalance because it encourages intra-alliance cooperation that may actually make conflict in the South China Sea less likely. Despite the fact that the two countries have had a defensive alliance since 1951, the United States has not maintained a permanent military presence in the Philippines since the early 1990s. The Philippines does not have a strong indigenous navy, and has been challenged by Chinese vessels in the South China Sea several times in recent years. Because the United States aims to cooperate with China as well as its East Asian allies, it does not take a position on sovereignty disputes like the Philippines’ maritime claims in the South China Sea. But if the US is to maintain this neutral stance, the Philippines will have to have the independent capabilities and training necessary to resist coercion at sea. Improved surveillance, training with the US military, and funding for new ships will make for a more capable Philippine military, making it less likely that the United States is drawn into a conflict on its ally’s behalf. The US presence in the Philippines will also provide reassurance to Manila, which may, in turn, encourage restraint. Thus far, the Philippines has acted responsibly in its disputes with China, submitting its maritime claims for international arbitration. The United States and the Philippines have also expanded alliance cooperation on non-traditional security and economic issues. Americans may be most concerned about China as an economic threat. But close trade ties between Beijing and Washington mean that the greatest threat to either party is conflict in the region. Recent developments in the US-Philippines alliance, and the rebalance more broadly, are multidimensional efforts to ensure that this does not come to pass.
—Mira Rapp-Hooper is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a PhD candidate at Columbia University. Her expertise includes nuclear weapons policy and strategy, alliance politics, security issues in East Asia, and nuclear nonproliferation.