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Herbert Docena: Building Security in the South China Sea

Herbert Docena
Herbert Docena speaking at the "Peace in Asia and the Pacific" conference in Washington, D.C. Photo: AFSC

Peace in Asia and the Pacific: Alternatives to Asia-Pacific Militarization
Presentation by Herbert Docena
South China Sea workshop

Greetings. I would like to thank the organizers for convening this timely conference.

When an influential commentator such as Robert Kaplan begins to brand the South China Sea as the “Future of Conflict”—as he did in the latest issue of Foreign Policy—it is hard to tell whether he makes such a declaration as a warning or as a provocation—with fear or with relish. Here after all is a commentator who has been “embedded” with the US military and who has been arguing for continued, if not expanded US, military presence in Asia.

It is the kinds of declaration made by the likes of Kaplan that may turn out to be self-fulfilling. For the more that the US actually feels justified to intervene in Asia, I would argue, the more likely that suspicion deepens, dialogue is impeded, and confrontation becomes the only option.

As I have tried to show in the panel on Southeast Asia earlier today, the US has succeeded in building a new and more sophisticated form of basing strategy in the Philippines—through the permanent deployment of about 500-1,000 Special Forces continuously in the country since 2002.

This is precisely the kind of basing that some US military strategists have been calling for for years—a plan conceptualized during the Clinton years, put into operation by Bush, particularly Rumsfeld, and carried on by Obama: a new global basing and global deployment strategy that avoided the problems of their traditional basing and deployment strategy.

Unlike the large, mammoth bases of the past such as the ones they used to have in Subic and Clark—which tended to attract a lot of attention and hence local opposition and restrictions—the new form of basing they wanted should be less visible; rather than being concentrated in a few large centers, their expeditionary capabilities should also be more numerous and more scattered around the world. Rather than have large and bulky forces, the US should also have small expeditionary forces  always on the go, flexible and mobile, agile and nimble—ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

This, it turns, out is precisely the kind of basing and deployment capabilities they have developed—under the JSOC—in the Philippines along with numerous other places in the world—such as in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, Seychelles, Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, etc.

We tried to draw attention to this in the Philippines—where US presence continues to be controversial—and our findings have since been confirmed, most recently, by the Washington Post—as well as by Wikileaks.

This Special Forces deployment is just part of the deepening US military presence in the Philippines since 2001. Since the signing of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1998, a steady stream of US troops have been arriving in the country for regular and recurring military exercises involving as many as 5,000 US troops, depending on the exercise. After the 9-11 attacks in 2001, the Philippine government gave the US permission to fly over the country’s airspace, use its airfields and ports, and travel on its sea-lanes. And with the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) signed in 2002, the US was allowed to store and pre-position equipment in the country, construct structures and be provided with the full range of logistics and operational services it requires during deployments. Between 2002 and 2006, the US military aid has been increasing.

Why is the US so keen on deepening its ties with the Philippines, you may ask?

US and Philippine governments insist that all these is part of the “war on terror.” But the work of the analysts and military planners we reviewed seems to have a completely different goal in mind: to encircle China.

Based on a review of official US military documents as well as publications by military strategists, it becomes clear that the US’ strategy is not to wait until China develops the capacity and the intention to challenge the US but to act now to stop it from doing so.

To persuade China that it is better to submit to a US-dominated world order, the US is attempting to convince it that the alternative will be worse; that defeat will be inevitable. To make this threat credible, the US is attempting to enlist countries around China to take its side and to encircle China with bases and troops.

The problem for the US, however—or at least for some military strategists, is that its troops are overstretched and countries in the region are hesitant to host them (See map). Hence, the renewed effort to deepen ties with countries such as the Philippines. Indeed, over the last few years, we’ve seen a series of US military studies or US military-sponsored studies emphasizing the role of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries—in the US strategy towards China.

As the PNAC—in a language echoed by official publications notes: “It is time to increase the presence of American forces in Southeast Asia…No US strategy can constrain a Chinese challenge to American regional leadership if our security guarantees to Southeast Asia are intermittent and US military presence a periodic affair.”

What is wrong with the US maintaining or expanding its presence and deployment capabilities in the Philippines and Asia? Aren’t they just there to protect Filipinos from Chinese aggression?

Here’s the problem: the more that the US beefs up its presence in the Philippines and the South China Sea, the more threatened China feels. The more threatened China feels, the more it will take what will be interpreted as aggressive actions by others in the region—such as establishing military facilities in the Spratlys. The more China undertakes these kinds of actions, the more threatened countries like the Philippines and Vietnam becomes. The more threatened Philippines and Vietnam becomes, the more likely they are to turn to the US for “protection”—thus giving the US even more reason to deepen its presence in the region, thus further provoking China, and so on.

It is a vicious cycle that can quickly spiral out of anyone’s control—a vicious cycle that we better stop now.

Obviously countries in the region have legitimate concerns with each other but a more cooperative and peaceful solution to resolving the issue is not impossible. Kaplan’s prediction is not inevitable. A lot ultimately depends on how the US moves. This is why the peace movement here in the US—connecting with peace movements in Asia—is more critical than ever. And I thank the AFSC and all of you for being part of it.

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