Back to future with US-Philippines pact

THE new security pact signed between the Philippines and the United States reveals recognition of geopolitical realities that should benefit Asia. The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) reverses the legacy of the assertive nationalism that led to the expulsion of American forces from Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base in 1992. Those who warned that an American withdrawal from Asia could result in a strategic vacuum, which would be filled by a new power or powers, were sometimes seen as devotees of balance-of-power politics. Yet, the military ascendancy of China, with which the Philippines is embroiled in a heated dispute over the South China Sea, has begun to test the faith of those who believed fondly that major power transitions could occur painlessly. EDCA attests to the wisdom of treating the US as an indispensable source of stability in Asia, not only because it is a superpower but also because it has no territorial claims or ambitions in the region.

China's anger over the development is understandable. EDCA gives the Philippines access to countervailing American power in its contestation of China's expansive maritime claims. This security cover is not intended to escalate the South China Sea dispute, which Manila has taken to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Netherlands. It was Beijing's rejection of arbitration, occurring in the context of displays of naval strength, which sharply reminded Manila of the great power discrepancy between the two nations.

The Philippines has sought to correct that imbalance somewhat by drawing on American strategic resources. The 10-year pact is not a new bases agreement, but it will permit thousands of US troops to be rotated through the Philippines and allow the US to station fighter jets, ships and surveillance equipment there. China is now dealing with a new Philippines.

Yet, it is important not to drive Beijing into a corner. EDCA should not be allowed to confirm Chinese suspicions of being encircled militarily by countries in a US-sponsored strategy of containment. China watched closely when President Barack Obama confirmed that disputed islands in the East China Sea were covered by the US security treaty with Japan.

American pledges of support for its allies and partners should be a signal to China to ask itself why, instead of hedging, other Asian countries are pivoting away from it towards America. But no Asian country should seek to exacerbate its differences with Beijing on the strength of American support. The challenge is to ensure that China plays by accepted international rules. The goal is not to alienate it and give it cause to act in a way that some fear it might.