James Holmes

Hard Times for Offshore Balancing in Philippines

The Philippines’ wishful thinking about the South China Sea is becoming dangerous.

A common assumption among offshore-balancing proponents is that, even after withdrawing to North America, U.S. forces can always return to Europe or Asia in times of dire peril, tipping the balance against a hegemon. Faced with a domineering power or alliance, the logic goes, local allies will welcome Americans back—out of sheer self-preservation if for no other reason. All Washington needs to do is preserve basing rights and carry out the occasional combined exercise with local partners to expedite access.

A report from the Associated Press suggests otherwise. The Philippine and U.S. governments have been negotiating the terms of U.S. access to bases on Philippine soil. You’d think the talks promise smooth sailing for Washington. China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea, including waters nearly within sight of Philippine shores. It has already poached geographic features deep within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. And Chinese mariners have put steel—or is it cabbage?—behind Beijing’s claims, fortifying Mischief Reef, encasing Scarborough Shoal with China Coast Guard vessels, and menacing the hardy Philippine marines who man a rusty old hulk marooned at Ayungin Shoal to defend Manila’s jurisdiction.

The prospect of losing jurisdiction over offshore waters, islands, and atolls must concentrate minds in Manila. Hopelessly outmatched militarily, the Philippines will reach out for support, granting U.S. forces no-strings-attached access to air and naval bases in the archipelago. Right? Not so fast, my friend!

The reality appears less straightforward than cause/effect logic—imposing Chinese threat begets desperate Philippine response—would imply. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin voiced fears of surrendering full control of the facilities, asking, “what will happen if we won’t have access? These bases will look like [American] bases.”

So? A quick response to Gazmin’s protests. China’s actions clearly are not worrisome enough—yet—to suspend domestic politics in the Philippine Islands. Officials in Manila are still trying to appease opponents of a more or less standing American presence in the islands. They clearly think they still have a best alternative to a negotiated agreement with Washington—namely the option of walking away from the bargaining table to mollify domestic sentiment. This suggests that Filipinos may be resigning themselves to China’s new normal in the South China Sea—and in turn that China’s small-stick diplomacy is working. It also suggests that wishful thinking prevails among Filipinos, who seemingly assume that America will, and can, ride to the rescue should things turn truly grim.

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How much more pressure must Beijing apply to induce Philippine leaders to buck popular opposition? We shall see. Manila must come to see liberal U.S. access as the least bad of all options before opening its bases.

So, is it easy to preserve access to allied facilities in the rimlands, hedging against a hegemonic war? Easier said than done. The U.S.-Philippine negotiations are one metric among many for judging the future of America’s forward presence in Asia. Let’s not casually assume away political and practical barriers to U.S. strategy.