The Obama administration’s long-promised “Pacific pivot” can’t come soon enough for the Philippines. After trying to fend off Beijing’s bullying, encroachment and, at times, outright aggression in the South China Sea, Manila is taking its behemoth neighbor to court. Specifically, Manila is appealing to the UN to settle a decades-old sea-border dispute and keep China out of Philippine waters. That’s a lot to ask of the often-feckless UN, but with the United States focused on “nation-building at home,” it may be Manila’s best option for now.
At issue in the South China Sea are boundary lines separating the territorial waters—and in some cases, the islands, atolls and shoals—of the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam.
Beijing has made some truly outlandish claims in the South China Sea—an area that, not coincidentally, may hold more than 200 billion barrels of oil. How outlandish? By international convention, a country’s territorial waters extend 12 miles from its coastline. Beyond that, nations observe an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 miles off a country’s coastline and allows for exploration rights. Not only does Beijing expect others to observe its EEZ as sovereign Chinese territory—which it is not—not only does Beijing refuse to respect the EEZs of its neighbors—just ask the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan—Beijing claims waters and islands 500 miles from the Chinese mainland. Its justification: a map created by Chinese cartographers in 1947. (Version of the map below is courtesy of Radio Free Asia.)
Based on that map, Beijing has claimed 80 percent of the Philippines’ EEZ, enfolding territory just 50 miles off the Philippine coast; fired on fishing boats in Philippine waters; and recently earmarked $1.6 billion to build ports and airfields on islands long claimed by the Philippines. In fact, The Washington Times reports that China has eight military bases on reefs claimed by the Philippines.
Manila’s case before the UN arbitration tribunal is a direct challenge to Beijing’s outlandish map.
In addition, Manila is tenaciously defending one of its clearest claims to sovereignty in the area—the rusting wreck of an old warship the Philippine navy purposely scuttled atop a shoal in 1999. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the ship, which continues to be manned, is “something of a symbolic marker in efforts to withstand China’s growing ambitions.” And it’s an irritant to Beijing, which explains why China has tried to prevent resupply of Manila’s defiant symbol of sovereignty.
Of course, this is about much more than the Philippines. The waters claimed by Beijing comprise one of the world’s main trade arteries, carrying 50 percent of global trade.
The South China Sea dispute cries out for American leadership. America is the only nation with the capacity and credibility to stand up to neighborhood bullies like China, enforce the principle of freedom of the seas and keep the global commons secure.
It pays to recall that since 1979, U.S. forces have challenged excessive air and sea territorial claims under the Freedom of Navigation program. President Reagan made good use of the program in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean. But amidst sequestration’s devastating defense cuts, Cold War-style tensions in Eastern Europe, al Qaeda’s reemergence in the Middle East and North Africa, and nuclear gamesmanship in Iran, President Obama may lack the resources to flex America’s maritime muscle in the South China Sea in the same way President Reagan did in the Gulf of Sidra. Consider the numbers:
• At the height of President Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s fleet numbers 284 ships. Current recapitalization rates will not keep up with plans to retire ships, leading to “a Navy of 240-250 ships at best,” according to former Navy Secretary John Lehman. At that size, America’s fleet will be equal to what she deployed in 1915.
• The Navy has been ordered to cut surface combatants from 85 ships to 78 stretch the build time of new aircraft carriers from five to seven years and had to seek a congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while USS Gerald Ford is completed. The attack-sub fleet will shrink from 55 to 42 by 2029.
• If sequestration continues to eat through the military, the Navy could be forced to mothball 38 more ships.
• The Pentagon plans to dry-dock 14 ships—including half the Navy’s cruiser fleet—to save cash. Under the plan, as the U.S. Naval Institute reports, “The cruisers would be modernized, but they would not be manned.” It will be interesting to see how effective a fleet of dry-docked ships without sailors is at deterring China.
These numbers aren’t even close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
As Assistant Secretary of Defense Katrina McFarland admitted in March, “Right now, the ‘pivot’ is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen.” Although McFarland later retracted her remarks, she was guilty of nothing more than telling the truth.
While Washington whittles away at the big stick, Beijing isn’t cutting anything from its military. On a percentage basis, the growth in military-related spending by China since 2000 is staggering: from $20 billion to as much as $215 billion—an unparalleled jump on a percentage basis.
The payoff: According to the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power, China now deploys some 79 principal surface combatants, 55 submarines, 55 amphibious ships and 85 missile-equipped fast boats. Beijing is investing in an array of “anti-access and area-denial weapons,” including bombers, submarines and sea-skimming missiles capable of attacking ships from 1,500 km away, “particularly aircraft carriers in the western Pacific Ocean,” the Pentagon concludes, adding, China wants “to become the preeminent Asian power.” That presents a problem for the current preeminent Asian power: the United States.
Of course, even if it patches together the resources to keep the South China Sea open—and the Philippines secure—Washington seems to lack the will to wield the big stick in the Pacific. Everything from the White House’s “come home, America” rhetoric and “lead from behind” half-measures, to its massive military retrenchment and utter failure to develop credible policy responses to challenges from Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang, suggests uncertainty. According to a high-level U.S. military official, the post-Crimea refrain from America’s Pacific allies is: “Are you going to do the same thing to us when something happens?”
That’s the worst message for Washington to send—at the worst time—to friend or foe in the Pacific.
What to do? The short answer is “more.”
First, the administration should stop the slide toward sequestration’s guillotine. The United States cannot keep the Pacific, well, pacific on the cheap. Policymakers of both parties are making the mistake of being penny-wise and pound-foolish: The lesson of history is that inadequate investment in defense always carries a much higher cost down the road than the peace-through-strength model.
Second, the administration must back up words with actions. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently traveled to the region to “reemphasize the rebalance [and] strategic interests of our country, to reassure our allies, to, again, make very clear of our commitment to our allies in the Asia Pacific.” But words aren’t enough to deter aggressors, which means President Obama needs to borrow a page from President Reagan’s playbook and dust off the Freedom of Navigation program. The administration deserves credit for sending a flight of B-52s into China’s unilaterally-declared “air-defense identification zone” in late 2013 to enforce freedom of the skies. In the same way, the president should order the Navy to enforce freedom of the seas by routinely steaming ships through the international waters China is trying to poach.
Having a U.S. presence in the Philippines will reinforce the message. In 2012, Manila offered facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Airbase as servicing hubs for U.S. aircraft and warships. In April 2014, Manila and Washington agreed to allow U.S. forces broad access to Philippine bases, while solidifying America’s security commitment to Manila. Published reports indicate that Manila and Washington expect hundreds of Marines to rotate through the Philippines annually.
Third, Washington should help rebuild the woefully under-equipped Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The Philippines invests less than 1 percent of GDP on defense (translating into a ranking of 136th in the world). President Benigno Aquino is investing an extra $1.8 billion over the next few years to beef up the AFP—a significant amount given that Manila’s annual defense outlays are just $2.9 billion. (Manila increased defense spending by 81 percent in 2011.) Yet these new defense outlays cannot cover up the AFP’s deficiencies. Consider the state of Manila’s air force, which retired the last of its fighter jets—antique F-5s—in 2005.
The Obama administration pledged just $50 million in military aid to Manila last year. Yemen, by comparison, receives $100 million in military aid annually. Egypt’s not-so-friendly government recently received a shipment of U.S. F-16s. Manila, too, requested F-16s from Washington but had to settle for FA-50 fighter-jets from South Korea. More akin to trainers than modern warplanes, these planes would be no match for China’s high-tech air force.
Fourth, the administration should read up on history. Like today’s China, the Germany of the late 1800s was a rising and restless power. Washington was deeply concerned about Germany encroaching upon U.S. interests. Washington’s concerns were validated by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s provocative deployment of a fleet to Manila after Adm. Dewey’s victory over the Spanish. Germany’s attempted blockade of Venezuela a few years later almost drew the United States into a war. These incidents explain why President Theodore Roosevelt made sure his dealings with Germany were reinforced by the big stick of the U.S. Navy.
Deterrence worked with Imperial Germany; it worked with the Soviet Union; and it can work to keep the peace with China and keep the Philippines secure—but only if Washington stops whittling away at the big stick.