PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s pledge to reinforce security in the contested West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) upon his arrival in Manila on Tuesday for the Apec summit is good news for the country and will go a long way to bolster America’s allies in the region against China’s expansionist moves.
A subsequent announcement that the US government would give two additional ships to the Philippine Navy aims to focus attention on Obama’s efforts to strengthen alliances in Southeast Asia. Thus, Obama’s first order of business in Manila was a visit to the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a onetime US-owned warship. The visit to the warship meant to call attention to a defense cooperation agreement cemented last year that gives the US new access to some Philippine military bases.
In the presence of Filipino and American troops, Obama proclaimed that the US “has a treaty obligation, an ironclad commitment to the defense of our ally, the Philippines.” He underscored “our shared commitment to the security of the waters of this region and to the freedom of navigation.”
When the US recently sent its warship, the USS Lassen, to sail close to one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, certain quarters view the exercise as a challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims in the contested waters.
No wonder China, through Foreign Minister Wang Yi, was quick to issue a warning: “We advise the US side to think twice before action, not to conduct any rash action and not to create trouble out of nothing.”
US Defense officials confirmed that the USS Lassen “conducted a transit” within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. The operation put the destroyer within an area that would be considered Chinese sovereign territory if the US recognized the man-made island as being Chinese territory. The message was clear—the US has ignored China’s excessive maritime claims because it knows the cost of doing nothing on the fiercely contested South China Sea.
China’s expansionism has seen economic dividends for the giant nation. For example, from 1978 to 2013, China’s fishery production jumped from 5 million tons to 60 million tons. In 2013 it accounted for 17 percent of the global catch—and nearly half of the South China Sea catch worth $21 billion.
With its heavily polluted coastline, China has been encouraging its fishermen to venture further out to sea through generous fuel and boat-building subsidies. Reports say that Chinese fishermen can tap a “special fuel subsidy” to fish waters around the disputed islands in the Spratlys. The official assistance not only produces larger catches, but takes advantage of China’s massive fishing fleet to extend its territorial claims.
In 2012 the South China Sea accounted for around 12 percent of the global seafood catch. With China’s subsidy to Chinese fishermen, those waters could lose 60 percent of their stocks in 30 years. Preventing that disaster requires multilateral talks and regional agreements on resource sharing. Given current tensions, however, the mightiest will continue to lord it over. And this is where other claimants, like the Philippines, need the help of a superpower like America to balance the scale.
Image credits: Jimbo Albano