Base Plan Puts American Troops on China’s Doorstep
U.S. troops return to The Philippines
On March 14, the United States and The Philippines announced they will base American troops on the archipelago nation for the first time in more than 20 years.
The deal, part of Washington’s pivot to Asia, greatly expands America’s network of bases in the Asia-Pacific, right along China’s periphery.
The base agreement is a blow to Beijing, which is locked in a territorial dispute with Manila—and has not been gentle about it. Rather than rolling over, The Philippines is re-arming … and courting powerful allies.
Since 2010, China has aggressively pursued territorial claims that have put it in direct conflict with The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
Chinese and Philippine forces are currently facing off at the Second Thomas Shoal—which China calls Ren’ai Reef—91 miles west of the Philippine island of Palawan in the South China Sea. A detachment of Philippine marines lives aboard the rusting transport ship Sierra Madre, which the navy beached on the shoal in 1999 as a government outpost.
China claims the Second Thomas Shoal, but it lies within The Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The shoal could be a gateway to oil and natural gas deposits.
Chinese coast guard ships have shadowed the marine contingent and turned back civilian ships trying to resupply the soldiers. In mid-March, The Philippines resorted to airdropping supplies.
The Second Thomas Shoal isn’t the only territory that Manila and Beijing are fighting over. In 2012 Philippine warships and Chinese surveillance vessels clashed bloodlessly over the Scarborough Shoal, 123 miles west of The Philippines’ largest island Luzon.
A former U.S. colony, The Philippines gained independence at the end of World War II. But Washington retained the giant, sprawling naval base at Subic Bay plus Clark Air Force Base. The Philippine government finally cancelled the basing deal in 1991.
Shuttering the facilities probably didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. The Cold War was over and China was still just a regional power. But now Beijing commands the world’s second-largest economy and a huge and growing military. Philippine politicians decided they wanted the Americans back.
Washington is keen to restore its Philippine stronghold but has moved carefully. Philippine law requires the senate to ratify base deals. To avoid contentious politics, the Americans want their new bases to be situated inside existing Philippine military facilities, where the ratification law does not apply. For this reason, the new U.S. outposts likely will be smaller than the superbases of the past.
That suits Washington fine. China has a huge arsenal of long-range ballistic missiles with high explosive warheads that are just accurate enough to hit some giant superbase. The Americans prefer to stage out of many smaller bases distributed across the Asia-Pacific, making an easy knock-out blow less likely.
What this means is that China’s intimidation tactics have backfired. Beijing played right into Washington’s hands by compelling Manila to offer up basing rights—and as a result, U.S. forces will be mere minutes’ flight time from territory China claims.
It’s a win-win for The Philippines and the United States. Manila gets the protection of the world’s leading military power for the price of a few tracts of land. Washington gets another base from which to monitor Beijing’s activities and, if necessary, wage war.
Everyone wins, except China.