MANILA - Amid a warning from China against military alliances in the region, the United States is working out a new “security architecture” in the Asia-Pacific with its strategic partners and treaty allies including the Philippines, official sources said.
The new security arrangement is being forged as regional tensions rise over China’s increasingly aggressive moves to stake its territorial claim over waters around it, including nearly the entire South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
New US bases, considered too expensive by Washington, are out, according to the sources. Instead, the United States will be working with “spokes” in the new security architecture as part of the pivot or rebalancing of US forces in the region.
The sources told The STAR that aside from the Philippines, the “spokes” would include Australia and Japan, and possibly Singapore and Thailand. Washington is also wooing Malaysia as a strategic partner.
Singapore allows US naval and air force troops to use the Sembawang military base under an agreement concluded in 1992. US forces also hold joint exercises with Thai troops, although US aid has been suspended following the recent military coup in Bangkok.
Last Friday at a session on security during the World Economic Forum on East Asia, Admiral William Locklear III, commander of US Pacific forces, noted the “rapid growth of military equipment” in the Asia-Pacific which, “if improperly used,” would mean “we have a big problem.”
With economies growing rapidly, he observed, the region has become “the most militarized” in the world.
“For business to go on, there has to be some kind of security architecture,” Locklear said.
He explored this new “architecture” at a subsequent closed-door WEF meeting with Philippine officials and experts on security in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
At the earlier session, Locklear emphasized that the US has maintained a strong security presence in the Asia-Pacific for 70 years and “the US military position is to welcome China as a partner.”
“The US position is not to contain China,” Locklear said as he pointed out that the two countries’ interests “converge” on about 80 percent of issues.
But much of the issues outside that 80 percent, he said, “happen to be here.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a veiled warning last Wednesday against forging regional military alliances aimed at his country.
Xi issued the warning as Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam find common cause against aggressive Chinese moves to stake its territorial claim in the East China Sea and the so-called Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea.
At the WEF session, Locklear described the Nine-Dash Line as “rather ambiguous” as he called for a “baseline” and maintenance of the status quo in disputed waters.
He also said a “winner-take-all” attitude could not work in the region.
Told that Russia has its own “pivot” to Asia, Locklear commented, “Whether Russia has the capability to become a significant Asia-Pacific power I think has yet to be determined… but it certainly is something that has to be thought about.”
Official sources said Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has raised concern in Washington that China may try something similar in staking its territorial claims, in the guise of protecting its citizens overseas.
US President Barack Obama, in his visit to Asia last month, assured Japan that Washington is committed to come to its defense in case of an attack on its territory, including the Senkaku Islands that China is also claiming. The US administered the Senkakus after World War II and later turned them over to Tokyo.
There was no such reassurance from Obama on shoals and reefs in the West Philippine Sea, within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, that China is also claiming.
Chinese forces have used water cannons to prevent the delivery of supplies to Philippine forces stationed on an old Navy ship grounded on Ayungin Shoal in the Spratlys.
Beijing has declared an Air Defense Identification Zone that Manila fears may be extended to the entire South China Sea.
The Philippines has brought the dispute to the United Nations for arbitration and delineation of its maritime entitlements under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – a move that has infuriated Beijing. Vietnam is said to be considering a similar move.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Laura del Rosario, who was at the WEF meeting, explained to the audience that seeking arbitration “is not a matter of us going against China but rather for us to get some clarity.”
Manila and Washington are still fine-tuning the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was signed during Obama’s visit in Manila last month. The EDCA provides the framework for increased rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines.