It is to be hoped that the Joe Biden administration is not trying to stir up the embers of the South China Sea disputes, as part of its efforts to assert its presence in Southeast Asia.
After the affirmative messages from Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris last week that the United States does not seek confrontation or conflict with China, it is disappointing that the administration’s sincerity should again be called into question.
Harris began a two-day visit to the Philippines on Monday, with Washington seeking to revive and expand the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a 2014 pact that allows for the US to have what the Pentagon calls “lily pads” in the country. Rather than permanent and expensive bases, the EDCA allows the US military to store defense equipment and supplies at five Philippine bases and rotate US troops through them. One of these bases is Antonio Bautista Air Base in the island province of Palawan near disputed waters in the South China Sea, which Harris will reportedly visit on Tuesday.
The EDCA stalled under previous Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte as relations between Washington and Manila became frosty, but with his successor President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. taking office in June, the Biden administration is hoping that ties can be quickly thawed thanks to the family legacy. Marcos’ father ruled the former US colony for two decades during the Cold War with the support of Washington.
While Harris’ on-going trip to the Philippines is widely perceived as being aimed at disrupting the robust bilateral ties that were established between China and the Philippines under the Duterte administration, those bonds were forged on the premise that both were willing to keep their territorial dispute at bay and look to the larger picture of bilateral cooperation and friendship. That has borne fruitful results for the Philippines, as China’s support has catered to the Philippines’ development needs over the past six years.
It is hard to imagine that Manila will jeopardize that at the instigation of the US, especially as President Marcos and President Xi Jinping agreed to enhance the friendly ties between the two countries and expand cooperation in areas such as agriculture, infrastructure and energy, including joint exploration of maritime oil and gas resources, when they met in Bangkok on Thursday.
Washington is seeking to meddle in the South China Sea disputes and manipulate the tensions as a means to keep Beijing on the back foot by undermining regional peace, stability and cooperation.
But despite its efforts, the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable. China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are fully and effectively implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and actively promoting consultations on a Code of Conduct for the waters. ASEAN has become China’s leading trade partner, accounting for 15 percent of China’s total foreign trade, while China has been ASEAN’s largest trading partner for 13 consecutive years.
With Harris offering the Philippines US assistance and projects to help the country deal with climate change and looming energy and food shortages, Manila will no doubt be willing to lend her a receptive ear, but the Biden administration should not interpret that as it choosing to stand on the US’ side.
Editorial, China Daily