The drumbeat of war on distant horizons is reverberating through Southeast Asia with increasingly strong declarations of U.S. determination to stop the Chinese from expanding their writ over the South China Sea, notably islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
While Defence Secretary Ashton Carter was in Singapore vowing that U.S. planes and ships would go wherever they wanted in international waters, the U.S. navy missile cruiser Shiloh was hovering into view at the historic Subic Bay port in Olongapo City, northwest of Manila.
U.S. officials in Manila said the Shiloh would stay in Subic Bay only long enough to refuel and take on other supplies before going on patrol in nearby waters. The question was whether the Shiloh, accompanied by other vessels, including destroyers and perhaps submarines, would enter waters close to the Chinese reclamation projects. The result would, at the least, provoke a fusillade of demands for the ships to go away as well as a critical comments from the Chinese officials and the Chinese media.
Nonetheless, the fear of armed conflict has risen as U.S. observation planes monitoring construction of the bases in the Spratlys, have defied Chinese demands not to violate what the Chinese see as their territorial space. CNN aired a dramatic display of this confrontation in a report recording the voices of Chinese ordering a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon spy plane from flying over the fringes of the Spratlys. The pilot of the plane ignored the order, challenging Chinese authority and almost daring the Chinese to do something about it.
In recent years the U.S. and Philippines have coordinated still more closely under a “visiting forces agreement” that has aroused widespread controversy in the Philippines. In a still greater historical irony, President Aquino goes to Japan this week in search of support — and perhaps assistance — for the Philippine position.
Japan has extended massive economic aid to the Philippines but has refrained from military assistance to a country that still harbors bitter memories of a Japanese occupation that lasted more than three years after Japanese forces drove out the Americans at the outset of World War II. The Americans finally retook the Philippines after some of the bloodiest urban fighting of the war in and around Manila.
About the Author: Donald Kirk is a veteran correspondent and noted author on conflict and crisis from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Northeast Asia. Don has covered wars from Vietnam to Iraq, focusing on political, diplomatic, economic and social as well as military issues. He is also known for his reporting on North Korea, including the nuclear crisis, human rights and payoffs from South to North Korea preceding the June 2000 inter-Korean summit.