When the US Navy kicks off the world’s largest maritime military exercises on Monday, one country that was not invited to the 10-nation drill will be watching with particular interest.
Although Rim of the Pacific 2020 will be based in Hawaii, China will be tracking any joint manoeuvres by US friends and allies on the sidelines or after the exercise, especially in the heavily disputed South China Sea.
Since last month, when US secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared as illegal China’s vast maritime claims on the South China Sea, over which other countries ranging from Vietnam to the Philippines also claim partial sovereignty, the region has become the focal point of Washington’s strategic rivalry with Beijing.
But while the July 13 statement ended the US pretence of neutrality in the South China Sea, some argue it might already be too late to reverse China’s dominance in the region. Since 2012, Beijing has built and militarised a series of artificial islands in the area and, just as worrying, Washington’s oldest ally in the region the Philippines, is showing signs of wavering in the face of Chinese pressure.
“How is this rolling back the control China has established through its artificial islands?” said William Choong, an analyst at the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “That would have worked 10 or 20 years ago but not today.”
Despite this, the US is trying to match its punchy new rhetoric on the region with action. It has conducted naval operations, sometimes with partners such as Japan and Australia, much more frequently in recent months and recently held a drill involving two aircraft carriers while China’s navy was exercising nearby.
Some countries in the region have supported Mr Pompeo’s July statement, such as Vietnam.
But the weak spot in the tougher US strategy is proving to be the shifting stance of the Philippines. This month, Delfin Lorenzana, Manila’s normally hawkish defence secretary, ruled the country out of participating in naval exercises in the South China Sea.
“President Rodrigo Duterte has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except in our national water, the 12-mile distance from our shores,” Mr Lorenzana said.
His remarks followed a laconic statement by Mr Duterte that he was unable to assert Manila’s claim to the waters because “China has the arms; we do not”.
Security officials in other Asian countries said Manila’s public surrender of its right to free navigation in the contested waters came as a shock. Beijing has long demanded that rival claimants to the South China Sea commit to holding naval drills only within 12 miles of their coasts. “Having the Philippines publicly acquiesce to that raises the prospect that China is making progress towards pushing through their demand,” said one official from a US ally.
Washington had been hoping for a more robust response from Manila, particularly as Mr Lorenzana and foreign secretary Teddy Locsin have until recently been using more combative language in regard to China. Mr Lorenzana has publicly endorsed Mr Pompeo’s tougher stance on the region and has called on the Chinese government to comply with a 2016 international arbitration ruling in the Philippines’ favour over the two countries’ maritime claims on the South China Sea.
The Philippines and the US have a mutual defence treaty that Mr Pompeo last year confirmed extended to the South China Sea. Washington was also heartened after Manila suspended a plan to end an agreement governing the visits of US forces to the Philippines.
For Washington, the Philippines is important for more than the South China Sea — it is also crucial to the US strategy for competing with China in the wider Indo-Pacific region. China’s development of missiles that can threaten big US bases and aircraft carriers is forcing Washington to consider a new strategy relying on smaller, mobile units.
The US Marines have developed an operational concept under which they would spread out to multiple islands in Asia and the Pacific to make it harder for an enemy to find, track and target them.
But that could be difficult without access to the Philippines, whose more than 7,000 islands sit between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. “The Marines need to orient themselves towards geographic reality,” said Euan Graham, a security expert at IISS, the defence and security think-tank, in Singapore. “Without the Philippines, this concept is hardly feasible.”
Analysts said Manila’s seemingly inconsistent policies on the South China Sea reflected changing political realities, notably the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr Duterte has been courting China and Russia to secure early access to a Covid-19 vaccine.
“Duterte made the statement [on exercises in the South China Sea] at the same time he was putting all his money on China giving the Philippines the Covid vaccine,” said Jay Batongbacal, head of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. “He is trading it [claims in the South China Sea] for the vaccine.”