Diplomatic and military posturing
In the wake of the US shooting down an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon, Nicholas Nugent assesses the latest round of confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
The shooting down of a Chinese balloon off America’s Atlantic coast after it had floated over US territory sparked a war of words between China and the US. Beijing said the balloon was a weather station which had blown off-course. Washington suspected surveillance purposes, saying it was unacceptable that it flew over US territory.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken cancelled a planned visit to Beijing, while China’s senior diplomat Wang Yi, speaking at a security conference in Germany, called the shooting down ‘unbelievable, almost hysterical’. The episode led to the sharpest dip in relations between the two powers since President Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping had an apparently cordial meeting in Bali last November.
Days before the balloon incident,US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in the Philippines to announce agreement with that country’s new president, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr, that US naval vessels make routine visits to Philippines naval bases. The bases involved were not named, possibly for fear of provoking a sharp Chinese response. They are said to be ‘strategic’ and are expected to include facilities on the island of Luzon, facing Taiwan across the South China Sea.
Disagreement over Taiwan – which China claims as part of its sovereign territory but the US tacitly recognises as an independent nation – is a main cause of dissension between the two powers. Agreement to use Philippines naval bases is the latest indication that the US is prepared to defend Taiwan should China decide to ‘reunify’ it with the mainland by force. The US maintains a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ as to how in practice it would respond to any challenge to Taiwan’s sovereignty.
The Philippines is an old ally of the US. During the 1960s and 1970s the US maintained forces there in support of its war effort in Vietnam. As fellow members of SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, the Philippines backed the US in its policy of ‘containing communism’, preventing its spread (as the US saw it) from China into Southeast Asia.
After communist governments came to power in reunified Vietnam and in Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s, and the US formally recognised China, SEATO was dissolved and US bases in the Philippines and Thailand closed. Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines and nearby Clark Airbase were among the largest US overseas military facilities.
There is no question of reopening US bases in the Philippines, according to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s comments during his visit to the Philippines. Rather, he said, the new deal extends the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows for the rotation of US forces through Philippines bases, as well as joint combat training. The 2014 treaty was a response to China’s own militarisation of the South China Sea, where it has built naval and air facilities on disputed islands, including several of the Spratly Islands, which are closer to the Philippines than China, a move Austin described as ‘illegitimate’.
Former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte was keen to overcome differences with China but after President Marcos took office last June, his government showed a new wariness of his country’s large northern neighbour and a keenness to shore up defences. The US Defense Secretary called the latest agreement ‘an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, to increase interoperability’.
Apart from concerns at any attempt by China to take control of Taiwan and its bold claim on much of the South China Sea, depicted on maps by a so-called ‘Nine Dash Line’, the US is worried that China’s aggressive expansionism (as the US sees it) threatens the free flow along the shipping lanes through the East and South China Seas. It routinely sends warships through the Taiwan Straits between the renegade island (as China sees it) and the Chinese mainland. Washington was also concerned last year to discover that China had negotiated its own use of base facilities at several islands in the Pacific Ocean.
This may have been a response to the AUKUS deal, under which the US and Britain agreed to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines to support patrols in the South Pacific and beyond. Nuclear-powered submarines can remain at sea for much longer than those powered by diesel. Australia and the US subsequently embarked on a diplomatic initiative to regain influence among the smaller nations of the region which have (as the US and Australia see it) been vulnerable to developmental ‘bribes’ from Asia’s most powerful nation.
America recently reopened a diplomatic mission in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, one of the independent nations which granted China base access in return for training its security forces. Washington has also signed ‘cooperation agreements’ which include security provisions with three other Pacific nations: the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. The recently elected government in Fiji is reported to have cancelled an agreement under which China was to train its police force.
Another security alliance concerned at China’s growing power and reach into the Indian and Pacific Oceans is the Quad, which groups the US and Australia with Japan and India, whose navies take part in joint exercises in the region. (Quad foreign ministers are meeting in India early in March.)
Security analysts say the granting to the US of base rights in the Philippines completes an arc of US bases or access agreements stretching from the US Pacific territory of Guam, through Japan and South Korea to the Philippines. The submarine deal with Australia also provides for US submarines to dock in Australian ports.
Any disruption of shipping in East Asia would impact all nations, not just the belligerents. For now the rising tension between the US and China appears to be reasonably contained but it is evident that neither side in this potential conflict zone is allowing the war in Ukraine to distract attention from the world’s busiest trading region.
Nicholas Nugent formerly reported on South-East Asia for the BBC and is author of Vietnam: The Second Revolution