Times they are a-changing.
The rapprochement (October 2016) between the Philippines President Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, if consummated, will have immense ramifications. The apparent lack of resolve by the United States and Australia to curtail China’s creeping hegemony in the South China Sea may not be unrelated to Duterte’s decision.
In mid-October, the Australian Government (quietly) confirmed that the Australian navy will not conduct ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols within twelve miles of disputed territory. This policy was decided despite the findings of the International Tribunal (July 2016) that China is in violation of international law and, significantly, that 60% of Australian trade transits this waterway. Foreign Minister Bishop has declared that naval patrols in territory illegally claimed by China would ‘escalate tension’. (Wall Street Journal, 17 October 2016)
The reported attempt to de-escalate tension is at odds with a quote by Foreign Minister Bishop to the effect that ‘Australia will continue to exercise its international rights to Freedom of Navigation and Overflight. (Sky News Australia, 13 July 2016)
Chinese officials and Chinese media have not been oblique in their warning that Australia must ‘carefully talk and cautiously behave’. Does this constitute a threat to trade with China? The Chinese Global Times has warned ‘If Australia enters the South China Sea——-it will become a target for China to warn and strike. (Wall Street Journal, 17 October 2016)
Sitting on the Fence or not
The Australian dilemma has, in part, been created by the Obama Administration which is reported to have authorised only three naval patrols defined in appeasing jargon as one of ‘innocent passage’.
Since assuming office in early 2016, President Duterte must have been a bemused observer to the absence of strong pushback by the United States armed forces as Chinese hegemony cemented itself into the South China Sea.
With China an unchallenged rising power apparently facing down a ‘global power’, President Duterte appears to have jumped off the fence to ‘change horses in mid-stream’. China’s difficult financial state and its inferior military power compared to America has apparently not deterred the President.
Pivot to Asia
Recent historical events prior to the Philippines closer ties with China, are germane to this situation. In 2015, the United States provided the Philippines Government with $80 million to upgrade military hardware. Early in 2016, the Philippine Supreme Court, under a ten year agreement, granted America leave to upgrade and construct military bases.. (Military Times, March 2016) It was agreed the work would proceed at a slow rate in order not to antagonise the Chinese. (New York Times, January 2015)
President Duterte agreed to the construction of five army and airforce bases, one sited close to Manila and not far distant from the contested Spratley Islands. In a recent development (September 2016) President Duterte now requires American forces to withdraw from the Islamic southern Philippines and ?cancel construction of a proposed airforce base.
Through a Glass Darkly
There are serious implications should a China-Philippine union be consummated. The American Administration fears a domino effect and that other Asian nations might follow suit perceiving a safer future with the Chinese dragon rather than with the American pivot. The concept of US military bases in the Philippines could become untenable. There would be an impact on the ANZUS Alliance. Depending on any domino effect, there could be a problem for Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations.
Thinking ahead, the US Chief of Navy Operations, Admiral Greenert, in Canberra, indicated America is considering a naval base in Australia. No doubt ADF plans to construct a $125 million logistics facility in Darwin will reinforce US navy aspirations. Would Darwin port become a sophisticated Chinese listening post? (ABC News.February 2015)
In summary, geopolitical trends in the South China Sea have been unidirectional for more than a decade. Only a major intervention can now change the course of future history.