The Debate

As South China Sea Verdict Nears, Washington Must Stand with Manila

As the Permanent Court of Arbitration nears a historic verdict, Washington must stand with Manila.

As South China Sea Verdict Nears, Washington Must Stand with Manila
Credit: Flickr/ U.S. Department of State

With tensions rising in the South China Sea, the United States’ alliance with the Philippines may be approaching one of its most important moments in its 65-year history. Over the past few years, the world has watched as China has steadily worked to achieve de facto control of the islands and waters encircled on a map by a “nine-dash line” encompassing the northern two thirds of the sea.  Now, at some point in the weeks ahead, the Permanent Court of Arbitration is expected to rule that China’s expansive claims are illegitimate. Such a ruling could bring tensions between China and the Philippines to a boil, right around the time that a new administration will be coming to power in Manila. In these trying and dynamic circumstances, it will be more important than ever that the United States and the Philippines stand shoulder-to-shoulder to deter escalation and aggression.

The good news is that the U.S.-Philippine alliance is stronger today than any point since the Cold War and on a trajectory to grow stronger still. Over the past 15 years, shared concerns about terrorism, natural disasters, and China’s growing power and aggressive behavior have drawn us back together.  Today, 71 percent of Filipinos support a stronger U.S. military presence in Asia—the highest percentage of any country in the region.  In 2014, our two countries signed a landmark Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) authorizing U.S. military forces to operate at a number of “agreed locations” throughout the country.  Last year, Congress authorized a new Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative that will enable the United States to partner with the Philippines and other countries in the region to improve their maritime security.

These trends are all encouraging. But while the U.S.-Philippine alliance has been gaining strength, so has China.  Over the past two decades, Beijing has been steadily improving its ability to project power into the South China Sea and wage a campaign of “gray zone” paramilitary aggression with its Coast Guard and maritime militia.  Since 2012, the Chinese Coast Guard has effectively occupied the Scarborough Shoal, a small shoal off the main Filipino island of Luzon that China claims as its own, and begun construction of artificial island outposts atop disputed features.  So far, the Philippines’ response to the occupation of Scarborough Shoal, China’s reclamation efforts, and the frequent harassment of its fishermen has been laudably measured: avoiding violent confrontations and appealing instead to international law and the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Now, with international arbitrators expected to rule in the Philippines’ favor, our ally may face another uptick in Chinese aggression. According to close watchers of the South China Sea, Beijing’s next move may be to declare an “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) over the South China Sea and enforce it with military aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems based on China’s artificial island outposts. Beijing could also begin building another artificial island base atop Scarborough Shoal, just over 200 miles from Manila. China could also increase the frequency with which it harasses and interdicts Filipino and other nations’ shipping inside its expansive nine-dash line.

To deter China from taking any of these destabilizing steps, the United States and the Philippines will need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the weeks and months ahead.  The two countries signed the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty “so that no potential aggressor could be under the illusion that either of them stands alone in the Pacific.” Secretary Carter was right to declare in April that our commitment to the security of the Philippines remains “ironclad.”  But to deter aggression in the South China Sea, we should also make clear that—as stated in the treaty—both parties are bound to respond to attacks on the “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft” of the other party, as well as “island territories under its jurisdiction.”  To have maximum impact, these words should be backed in the near term by the continuous presence of U.S. naval forces and, in the longer term, by continuing efforts to build up the Philippines’ defensive capabilities, offset China’s military growth, and maintain a stable balance of military power in the region.

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Might does not make right, but it can also be used to deter threats to peace, prosperity, and the rule of law.  While the United States should not take sides in territorial disputes, it should support those parties that are pursuing peaceful resolution. The Philippines is one such party, and its alliance with the United States is an exemplary link in what Secretary Carter recently called a “principled security network” in the Asia-Pacific region.  That link was forged 65 years ago, but by adhering to our shared principles in the trying weeks ahead, the United States and the Philippines can prove that it remains strong.

Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-Virginia) is the Co-Chairman of the Congressional China Caucus and Chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower & Projection Forces Subcommittee.