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"Return of the admirals"


Last April, Russia and China had joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. It was too close for comfort to Japan and South Korea. It didn’t take too long for the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to react. A few days ago, last June 21-22, the USS George Washington carrier strike group conducted a trilateral event with warships from Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea.

It seems that the trilateral naval exercise was a reminder to Russia and China that the U.S. and her Asian allies were prepared to meet a new Russo-Sino alliance. Just two months earlier, Russia and China held weeklong war games in the Yellow Sea involving more than 20 Russian and Chinese warships. The Russian warships were based in Vladivostok.

*“Rising World”

It is interesting to note that last May, Sergei Karaganov, an academic from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, recommended that Russia move her “economic capital” to Vladivostok -- 4,000 miles to the Far East -- while keeping the political, defense, and diplomatic establishment in Moscow. He said that the move would make Russia a part of the “rising world.” However, in my opinion, the move wouldn’t just give economic advantage to Russia but also provide her with a strategic military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Vladivostok’s close proximity to China and North Korea would also give Russia an opportunity to create a new “axis of power” with China and North Korea.

When Philippine President Benigno Aquino met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House last June 8, they discussed security and economic issues in the region including expanding intelligence-sharing and cooperation on maritime security. During their press conference, Obama said that the security and military cooperation with the Philippines “is a reminder to everybody that the United States considers itself, and is, a Pacific power.”

*New Cold War

It makes one wonder if the recent military activities in the region are leading to a new Cold War? If so, the Philippines’ strategic location that’s sandwiched between the vast Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea could put her near the epicenter should a new Cold War erupt. And with all the realignment and rearmament that’s going on among the big powers and their respective allies, the new Cold War could be as deadly as – if not deadlier than -- the old Cold War.

*Mutual Defense Treaty

The question is: Is the Philippines ready for it? The answer is a big “NO.” With two warships – a frigate and a cutter -- and no warplanes, the Philippines would be helpless in the event China invades her. And there is no guarantee that the United States would automatically come to her aid should the Philippines invoke their Mutual Defense Treaty. However, with the recent standoff between China and the Philippines at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines needs to open her doors again to American military forces if she expects the U.S. to come to her defense.
In my article, “Are we losing the Karburo War?” (June 21, 2012), I wrote: “In spite of the departure of U.S. military forces, the 1952 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) remained in force. But many wondered, ‘How could the U.S. come to the defense of the Philippines without any permanent military bases to operate from?’

“In1998, then President Fidel V. Ramos successfully negotiated the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S. The VFA provides for future military cooperation between the two allies including joint military exercises. But critics said that the VFA would be used to get around the 1987 Constitution’s prohibition of foreign military bases on Philippine soil.”

*New strategy

On June 2, 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke before the annual Shangri-La Dialogue conference in Singapore. He announced that the U.S. is moving 60% of her naval forces to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 as part of a new strategy to increase U.S. presence in Asia-Pacific. “We are stressing our effort to try to develop partnerships with countries in this region, to develop their capabilities so that they can better defend and secure themselves,” Panetta said. Under the new strategy, the U.S. military aims to be smaller, more flexible and agile. He also said that rotational deployments are preferred to permanent bases.

Last June 11, Admiral Cecil Haney, Commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, announced that the U.S. Navy would be deploying its most advanced warships, submarines, and fighter jets in the Asia-Pacific, apparently to counterbalance China’s modernization of her naval forces at “breakneck speed.”

*“String of Pearls”

Indeed, China is in a frenzy to increase her naval capability. She had acquired and retrofitted a Russian aircraft carrier, which is now undergoing several sea trials. She is also building two brand-new super aircraft carriers to be deployed to in the “String of Pearls,” which refers to China’s sea lines of communications that runs through the “choke points” -- Strait of Mandab, Strait of Malacca, Strait of Hormuz, and Strait of Lombok -- all the way to Port Sudan in the Red Sea.

With the accelerated modernization of China’s naval forces, it is expected that China would become a naval power in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. But U.S. is also building more warships including the super aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford, which is under construction, and a fleet of stealth destroyers. With 11 aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy, China is not yet in a position to challenge the U.S. militarily but would be within a decade.

*Wake-up call

Recently, Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, director of Chinese Navy’s Information Expert Committee, said that Chinese troops should go after Philippine ships and fishermen who go near the Scarborough Shoal. And that’s precisely what happened when it was reported in the news last June 25 that “a Chinese vessel last week rammed a Philippine fishing boat north of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), killing a Filipino fisherman and leaving four others missing.” Was it accidental?

Zhuo’s provocative remark raises the question: If Chinese troops were deployed in the Scarborough Shoal and attacked Filipino fishing boats, how would the Philippine government react? And by what means could the Philippines stand up to China? Perhaps it’s about time that the Philippines welcomes back the deployment of American forces within the framework of the VFA.

That may be the only option left; otherwise, the Philippine government might as well kiss the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly islands good-bye. It’s time indeed for the return of the American admirals to Subic Bay.

by Perry Diaz

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