Earlier this month, China conducted its largest-ever military exercise in the South China Sea, raising new concerns about the future of freedom of navigation and overflight in the contested maritime region.
The exercises put a new spotlight on the Philippines, with the United States and its key regional security allies now bidding to step up their strategic cooperation with Manila.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s warming ties with China, with ongoing discussions over energy and other resource-sharing arrangements in contested areas, has raised US concerns over China’s rising influence over its smaller neighbors.
While Duterte has reached to Beijing, his security establishment and other prominent Filipinos have remained more circumspect. Those divergent views have been on full display in recent months, witnessed in a flurry of strategic exchanges with the US and its regional partners.
Despite Beijing’s overtures, including rich promises of economic assistance and investments, the Philippines has cause for concern.
No less than Chinese President Xi Jinping, dressed symbolically in army fatigues, addressed military personnel who participated in the recent mass maritime exercises.
Over 10,000 sailors, 48 warships and 76 aircraft took part in what Chinese state-owned media described as “the biggest maritime military parade since the foundation of the new China and a heroic display of the PLA Navy in the new era.”
China also leveraged the unprecedented drills to install equipment capable of jamming communication and radar systems of rival states on land features under its control in the Spratly islands, including on the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef.
It’s becoming clearer that China wants to discourage and deter any challenge to its expansive South China Sea claims, outlined in its controversial nine-dash line map. Recent moves aim to restrict other claimants and external powers’ ability to operate their military assets in the area.
For Washington and other regional powers, continued security cooperation and engagement with Southeast Asian nations is crucial to preventing complete Chinese domination of the waters, through which over US$5 trillion worth of global trade travels every year.
China’s reported installation of jamming technology on Mischief Reef provoked a political backlash in Manila, with Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano promising to take the necessary diplomatic measures to protest China’s latest perceived provocation in nearby waters.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who has consistently expressed reservations about China’s intentions in adjacent waters, promised to verify and examine whether national communication and weapons systems could now be in jeopardy. That review is ongoing.
Just days after China’s large-scale drills, the US, Japan and Australia deployed warships to Philippine bases in Manila and Subic Bay in their own show of force.
Washington deployed USS Theodore Roosevelt to Manila Bay, its second aircraft carrier to visit the Philippines in the span of a month.
In February, the USS Carl Vinson made a high-profile visit to the Philippines ahead of its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, the latest in a series of US pushbacks against China in the maritime area.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon made the unprecedented move of challenging China’s de facto control of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal by deploying warships within 12 nautical miles of the contested land feature.
Other US allies are pitching in. The Royal Australia Navy’s guided-missile frigate HMAS Anzac, accompanied by the auxiliary oiler replenishment HMAS Success, arrived in the Philippines on April 11 for a five-day-long visit.
Two days later, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces’ Akizuki-class destroyer made a separate three-day good will visit.
“I think there are times when we should speak loudly and clearly,” declared the United States’ Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim from aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt while it was docked at Manila Bay.
“Our friendship has never been stronger and we have been and remain an Indo-Pacific nation. And our commitment to this region and its well-being is enduring,” he said.
Underlining the two sides’ deep historical ties, the American diplomat also pointed out the presence of 400 Filipino-Americans aboard the warship, part of the large number of first- and second-generation Filipino-Americans who have jointed the US armed forces in recent decades.
Commander of the Carrier Strike Group 9 Rear Admiral Stephen Koehler welcomed some 300 prominent Filipinos from the business community, government and academia on the aircraft carrier, also known as the “Big Stick”, alongside the US ambassador.
The naval commander emphasized the importance of ensuring that international waters like the South China Sea are “a rightful place for everybody” – a not so subtle swipe at China’s perceived threat to freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.
“It’s a showcase of the capability of the US armed forces, not only by sea but also by air,” Philippine army Lieutenant General Rolando Bautista said during his visit to the USS Theodore Roosevelt. “The Americans are our friends. In one way or another, they can help us to deter any threat.”
While Duterte has expressed his commitment to warmer relations with China, often at the expense of strategic ties with the US, many prominent Filipinos – including Duterte’s known rivals – continue to value the country’s longstanding alliance with America.
Among those in attendance at the aircraft carrier ceremony was interim Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes, former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Major General Restituto Padilla and Harvard-educated tycoon Don Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala.