A brewing storm in the Western Pacific

Walden Bello 24/7/13

A storm is brewing in the Western Pacific. As the Asia-Pacific region descends into a period of destabilizing conflict, the Philippines is quickly becoming a frontline state in the US strategy to contain China – the central thrust of the Obama administration’s so-called “Pivot to Asia”.
In the most recent development, the Philippine government has offered the United States greater access to its military bases. China’s controversial moves in the Western Pacific have served as a convenient excuse for heightened US military presence in the region. In particular, Beijing’s claim of the whole South China Sea (including the West Philippine Sea) as Chinese territory has allowed the United States to portray itself as indispensable for protecting the region’s smaller countries from Chinese hegemony. A one-time US colony and ally, the Philippine government has been especially receptive to Washington’s siren call.
July 24 marks the first anniversary of Beijing’s creation of “Sansha City” to “administer” the whole West Philippine Sea and the islands and terrestrial features it claims. Among these are the Spratly Islands, nine of which are claimed and occupied by the Philippines, along with Scarborough Shoal, Ayungin Shoal, Panganiban Reef, and Recto Bank, all of which are claimed by the Philippines.
The last few months have seen a series of provocative Chinese moves. These include the occupation of Scarborough Shoal, or Bajo de Masinloc, by up to 90 Chinese ships, which have barred Filipino fishers from the area; an increased Chinese military presence at Ayungin Shoal; and a Chinese general’s brazen presentation of the so-called “Cabbage Strategy”. The thrust of the Cabbage Strategy, Major General Zhang Zhaozhong explained, was to surround Bajo de Masinloc, Ayungin Shoal, and other Philippine territories with a massive Chinese naval presence to starve Filipino detachments and prevent reinforcements from reaching them…
The pivot
Obama’s so-called Pivot to Asia is not novel. It is simply a return to the pre-9/11 global military posture of the George W Bush administration, which redefined China from being a “strategic partner” to a “strategic competitor”. The “Contain China” strategy was put on hold after 9/11, owing to Washington’s drive to win allies for its “War on Terror”. But while it is not new, there is an urgency to the containment strategy under Obama owing to developments in the intervening decade.
To many analysts, the Pivot actually represents a retreat from the comprehensive global military dominance that the neoconservative faction of the US ruling class attempted under Bush. It is a feint, a maneuver designed to serve as a cover for a limited retreat from America’s disastrous intervention in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. It is an attempt by Washington to retreat to an area for imperial power projection that it sees as more manageable than a Middle East that is running out of control…
…Sixty percent of US naval strength has been shifted to the Western Pacific. This has been accompanied by the accelerated deployment of US Marine Corps units from Okinawa to Guam and Australia. US Special Forces continue to participate in the campaign against radical Islamists in the Southern Philippines, while conducting amphibious and naval exercises with Philippine military units near the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. The most recent development is that the Philippine government will allow greater US access to Philippine bases, including the former massive US naval complex at Subic Bay. Twenty years after giving up its bases in the country, the United States is back with a bang in the Philippines.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello has written extensively on developments in the Asia Pacific region.