May 2015 – SOUTH CHINA SEA – The drumbeat of war on distant horizons is reverberating through Southeast Asia with increasingly strong declarations of U.S. determination to stop the Chinese from expanding their writ over the South China Sea, notably islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. While Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in Singapore vowing that U.S. planes and ships would go wherever they wanted in international waters WAT -0.71%, the U.S. navy missile cruiser Shiloh was hovering into view at the historic Subic Bay port northwest of Manila. Reports of Carter’s tough remarks at a gathering of defense ministers and the Shiloh’s visit to Subic Bay, the largest U.S. navy base before the Americans were forced to give it all up more than 20 years ago, were couched in euphemisms that scarcely masked the impression of spiraling tensions. “We want a peaceful resolution of all disputes,” Carter began. “A routine port call,” said a Philippine navy spokesman when asked what the Shiloh was doing at Subic Bay, in the once roaring American base town of Olongapo.
Oh sure. Those soothing assurances somehow only heightened the sense of an impending collision in the South China Sea around the Spratly Islands, where China has added about 2,000 acres to its holdings in the past year and a half by reclaiming land from the shallow waters. TV news programs in the Philippines and other countries repeatedly show what look like the makings of military bases, including air strips long enough for just about any plane, extending from shoals and atolls long since taken by China. Not that gunfire is about to break out right away. Carter chose an especially supine grouping before which to call for a code of conduct that would unite all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations behind a demand for freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of all disputes. ASEAN, while bringing leaders of the ten together for meetings, has been notoriously ineffective in coming up with real agreements on anything, much less on mutual defense.
Nonetheless, the fear of armed conflict has risen as U.S. observation planes monitoring construction of the bases in the Spratlys, have defied Chinese demands not to violate what the Chinese see as their territorial space. CNN aired a dramatic display of this confrontation in a report recording the voices of Chinese ordering a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon spy plane from flying over the fringes of the Spratlys. The pilot of the plane ignored the order, challenging Chinese authority and almost daring the Chinese to do something about it. So far rhetoric rather than gunfire has been the response. Carter in Singapore declared the U.S. would “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.” In Beijing, Chinese officials in tandem with the Chinese media have been excoriating the U.S. for inflaming tensions, particularly in supporting the complaints of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III regarding China’s encroachment on islands claimed by Manila.
“One cannot help wondering whether Pentagon is now moving to the forefront in challenging China in the South China Sea,” said a commentary in the English-language China Daily, a major organ for the Chinese viewpoint that circulates in the U.S. and Europe as well as China. The paper singled out the Philippines for “involving countries which have nothing to do with the maritime dispute,” seeking “to consolidate its unwarranted claims on China’s territory and cover up its persistent trouble-making.” –Forbes