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FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 13, 2021 - 12:00am

If there was any intention to scare the tiger, this year’s Balikatan war games between US and Philippine forces hardly fits the bill.

Last year, because of the pandemic, the war games were cancelled. This year, the joint military exercises conducted in the framework of the Mutual Defense Treaty will be much scaled down.

According to the AFP, about 700 US troops and 1,300 Philippine soldiers will be participating in the joint exercises. This is about a quarter of the usual size of the annual war games.

AFP chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana did not sound too upbeat describing this year’s event. “It’s a low-key exercise, just to keep the alliance – the contact – between the two armed forces.”

Furthermore, he said this year’s exercise “is a hybrid of virtual and physical activities.” That sounds like portions of the “exercise” will actually be expanded Zoom meetings.

The scaled-down version of the war games will surely disappoint those who might have wanted a more robust US military presence in the archipelago in the light of the ominous presence of Chinese naval forces in the contested South China Sea reefs. Over the past few weeks, the Philippines has been trying to break up a large formation of Chinese “militia” vessels near Julian Felipe Reef.

The Philippines, citing the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), claims sovereign rights over the reef that is within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) we claim. Both China and Vietnam, however, claim sovereignty over the area and have actually built military facilities to underscore their claims.

Notwithstanding, the Philippines has been filing daily protests over the massed vessels at the reef. This is principally to appease domestic opinion and has very little practical effect. The number of Chinese vessels massed in this area appears to have been significantly reduced – although they continue to loiter not too far from the area.

The Philippines claims a “victory” after an international tribunal recognized our EEZ claims but made no ruling on the sovereignty issues. China did not participate and does not recognize the arbitration proceedings. The Asian superpower likewise does not recognize the UNCLOS.

The US Navy has been conducting “freedom of navigation” maneuvers close to the Chinese-held reefs. These maneuvers are largely ceremonial. They have not dissuaded China from continuing its military build-up in the South China Sea.

Last week, a group of Filipino journalists venturing out to the contested area claimed they were chased away by (armed) Chinese vessels. The AFP is investigating the incident. One version of the incident has it that the Filipino journalists failed to identify themselves when asked, prompting the Chinese vessels to chase them away.

We should await the AFP investigation before blowing up this incident to the proportion of a diplomatic crisis. There are individuals and groups in our midst who, for their own political benefit, want to inflate the tensions inherent in our competing claims over pieces of rock in the South China Sea.

The same individuals and groups think the US Navy will come rushing in like a cavalry each time we find ourselves in a confrontation in the contested area. They see the US Navy as some sort of “equalizer” in a confrontation where our own naval forces are grossly inferior. They think the Mutual Defense Treaty will draw in US forces at the slightest excuse.

The US, of course, is more careful than some of our domestic rabble-rousers may be. While the Americans are pursuing a containment strategy against China, discouraging the Asian power from asserting itself in the Taiwan Strait and the Sea of Japan, they are most reluctant about a shooting war breaking out.

American officials, as a matter of course, will always say they stand by their commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty. But they will hew and haw over defining the red line that must be crossed to activate mutual defense. They will not plunge into a major war over some nondescript rocks in the middle of the South China Sea. In the American view, these rocks are not part of the “metropolitan” Philippines covered by the treaty.

The Americans are surely interested in a more assertive Philippine posture in the South China Sea. They hope (against the evidence) that could be helpful in keeping China at bay.

It appears the scaled-down version of this year’s Balikatan exercises is at least in part intended to dissuade the rabble-rousers desperately searching for a reason to bang the pans and inflame anti-China hysteria. The exercises are not about to become a photo opportunity to titillate those who imagine US forces will be actively involved in asserting our own territorial claims.

The US smartly kept itself out of our noisy claims regarding sovereignty over Sabah. They kept clear of that dispute over the decades. At one point, we had enough warmongers advocating Filipino invasion of Malaysian territory. Nothing happened, fortunately, and we have since settled into a de facto acceptance our claim is nothing more than a piece of paper specifying some annual rental religiously paid by the British East India Company.

The same will happen with the contested South China Sea reefs. China, understandably, is playing a long game here. They will eke out inches of territory wherever they can, use superior naval forces to crowd out everybody else and build costly facilities where they can – all well short of armed confrontation.

We will be contesting these little rocks for the next thousand years, governed by the brutal facts of realism in international politics.

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