Military Drills in the Philippines: Geopolitical Context

04.05.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

456543333The 32nd military American-Philippine drills “Balikatan” (“Shoulder to shoulder”) were held on April 5-15, 2016 in the Philippines. This time 4 thousand American and 5 thousand Philippine soldiers participated in the event.

A formal reason for holding the drills was preparation of the Philippine army for “struggle against radical-Islamist guerrillas and extremist groups challenging political and social regime.”

However, a strong trend toward deterioration of the situation in the South China Sea lends Balikitan drills a special significance, as the probability of a direct military confrontation between two leading world powers in this region remains high. To make matters worse, the main USA’s partner in these drills are the Philippines—China’s chief opponent in the South China Sea.

There are two other noteworthy circumstances related to the event. First, it was the third time that Australia participated in the drills, though its contribution was more or less symbolic. Secondly, a submarine and two destroyers of the Japanese naval forces paid a visit to the Philippine’s naval base Subic Bay (former principal US naval base in East Asia) at the time of the exercises, though formally they did not take part in the drills.

These two circumstances are meaningful enough to be subjected to an in-depth scrutiny, especially since they signify a long-standing trend (though developing sporadically) toward the establishment of some sort of a military and political alliance (aka “Asian NATO”) with a clearly anti-Chinese context. A recent speech delivered by Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. PACIFIC COMMAND, in New Delhi gave a new impetus to the aforementioned trend.

Australia has been a military and political ally of the US since 1951 and the most active participant of various American military operations in the recent years. For example, Australians excelled in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 1999, 5,500 Australian military personnel (constituting the core of the International Forces under the auspices of UN) effectively and promptly curbed attempts of Indonesians to annex the predominantly Christian eastern part of Timor Island.

The US, whose participation was limited to the provision of means of transportation for the transfer of International Forces to the Eastern Timor, lauded the actions of its ally.

At the same time, ever since 2007, when the so-called “Initiative of four” (the US, Japan, India and Australia) failed, Canberra has remained extremely cautious in its military activities in the “sensitive” for China areas, with the South China Sea undoubtedly being one of them.

As for the latest US-Philippine drills, Australia sort of participated in them discharging its duties to the US, its core military and political ally, but 80 soldiers it deployed to Philippines can hardly be called a contingent.

The core reason for Australia to think twice before engaging in military activities of its key ally, explicitly or implicitly aimed at China, lies on the surface and is defined by the word “economy.” The country’s prosperity largely depends on the extremely advantageous trade and economic relations with China. As of today, trade with China constitutes 30% of Australia’s total foreign trade turnover. This is seven times the volume of trade with the US.

In December 2015, China became the tenth country (along with the US, Japan, South Korea, and some other states), with which Australia had signed free trade agreements.

However, in the circumstances of escalating tension between Australia’s main ally and main economic partner, Canberra has to deal with a challenging dilemma. “What will we do if Washington hawks unleash a war against China over some Taiwan?”

Australia’s reluctance to deal with this kind of questions (which, apparently, have no “good” answers) explains cautious attitude of its government toward both American attempts to revive the “Initiative of four,” and its symbolic participation in Balikatan. Beijing, in its turn, keeps sending mild warnings hinting that Australia is running a material risk by participating in the events of this sort.

As for Japan’s prospective involvement in the (hypothetical) “Asian NATO” alliance, and appearance of its ships at the shores of Subic Bay in the South China Sea at the “right time,” they can be easily explained.

China is one of three Japan’s key and almost equally important economic partners (along with the US and the EU). What’s more, there is a fundamental difference between Japanese-Chinese and Australian-Chinese relations. The former is susceptible to extremely high (and negative) influence of politics.

In a simplified form, the core reason of why Japanese-Chinese relations have always been deficient lies in the century-long mutual distrust that now sees another revival. And that, in turn, aggravates the situation with five uninhibited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, situated in the East China Sea, with the total area of 7 sq. km. For the same reason Japan is expanding its political, economic and now military presence in the critically important South China Sea, and, more widely, in the South-East Asia.

Tokyo is currently giving high priority to its relations with the Philippines. Signing of an agreement on supply of Japanese military technologies and equipment to the Philippines on February 29 this year by the ambassador of Japan to Manila and the Philippines Defense Minister is one of the most noteworthy events in the Japanese-Philippine relations.

In a statement issued by the Philippines Department of National Defense in the wake of the signing, special attention was given to the fact that the Philippines were the first member of ASEAN to enter into an agreement on military cooperation with Japan. It is almost certain that the other countries of ASEAN—an Association uniting 10 countries—will soon follow the Philippines.

For example, Viet Nam. This is where Japanese ships sailed to after their “observation” of Balikatan exercises was over. In the course of several recent years, Japan and Viet Nam have been checking each other’s predisposition to the creation of a cooperation in the domain of defense.

Beijing, where they nurture hopes that the political situation in Hanoi (as well as in the Philippines, where general election will be held in May) will change to China’s advantage, has been closely following these developments. Cautious optimism was expressed in connection with the changes taking place among Viet Nam’s leadership: on April 7, Nguyen Xuan Phuc was elected the new country’s Prime Minister, succeeding the “pro-US” Nguyen Tan Dung in this position.

But already on April 8, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry demanded that China remove its oil rig from the South China Sea, the area that remains one of many bones of contention between the two countries.

Overall, though, Balikatan drills (as well as other related events) once again demonstrated that the situation in Southeast Asia is further worsening with no signs of improvement.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.