MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/07 June) – If the US considers the Pacific Ocean an American Lake, China is also in a frenzy trying to convert the South China Sea (including the portion we call the West Philippine Sea) into its own sphere of control. Undoubtedly, this is part of the plan to dominate Asia by grabbing resource-rich isles that are also being claimed by the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries and, in effect, controlling strategic sea lanes that serve as China’s lifeline to energy supply from the Middle East.
The fortification at Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal and reclamation of some reefs possibly for airstrips for both economic and military purposes points to a serious effort to establish Chinese hegemony in the region. China may have the biggest army in the world, but it cannot hope to assert its will without naval facilities that can keep rivals at bay.
There is only one explanation for Chinese aggression. With its economy going into overdrive, China, like the US and European powers did in their own time, is responding to the urge to expand its reach. Only by securing its access to resources – and flexing its muscle against its neighbors to the south – can China prevent its local economy from overheating, a scenario that could lead to social unrest despite the country’s totalitarian system.
The US factor
Militarily, China faces no serious challenge from the Philippines, other ASEAN countries and even from affluent Japan whose constitution bans a military buildup. China’s annexation of Philippine territories in the disputed Spratly Islands and attempts to do the same to Japanese-held islands proved Beijing’s determination to embark on what Chairman Mao accused the former Soviet Union of doing: social imperialism.
Alarmed by – and helpless against – Chinese aggression in the disputed territories, the Philippines has been hoping for the US to undertake bolder moves in the South China Sea. This has not happened so far. Except for nuanced statements like telling China that the US was concerned over the future of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Washington has appeared reluctant to confront Beijing head-on at this stage of a crisis in the making.
During his visit to Manila this year, President Obama, answering a question by reporters on how the US will respond in a war between the Philippines and China, said: “My job as commander-in-chief is to deploy military force as a last resort, and to deploy it wisely. And frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people have no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.”
Such response implied at least three things:  the US will not automatically come to our side in a war with China,  American public opinion will influence, if not dictate, the US government’s response in the event of such a war, and more importantly,  the US will either fight with us or leave us to the mercy of China depending on which option will serve American interests better.
This does not mean however that the US will tolerate Chinese hegemony in Asia. The conduct of joint military exercises at the West Philippine Sea, visits of warships and submarines, and lately, the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines and the US can only be interpreted as clear warnings that Washington is willing to match Beijing’s buildup in the region.
For its part, China viewed these moves as part of US encirclement efforts in preparation of possible hostilities. China remains undeterred though. It has built an oil rig inside Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. How the US will respond to this latest act of adventurism will either embolden China or hold it back – at least for the time being.
If China opts to push its luck further, it will be interesting to see how alliances would unfold vis-à-vis the multilateral disputes in the South China Sea. And, in case tensions erupt into a full-blown war, it will be more interesting to know if the US can hold on to its superpower status or if we will see the rise of yet another Leviathan. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)