The US has become an extremely important ally for the Philippines as the country aims to thwart China’s encroachment into the Manila economic exclusion zone. In 2016, the US reached an agreement with the Philippines to build five military installations located throughout the country.
The base which infuriated Beijing more than any other was the Antonio Bautista Air Base on western Palawan island, which faces the hotly disputed Spratly islands directly.
China has claimed ownership of the South China Sea and Spratly Island cluster that lies within it, infuriating the Philippines and the US.
But as President Donald Trump uses his forces to help the country, some experts at the Council of Foreign relations fear that this could lead to an accidental conflict.
It states in its conflict tracker: “Washington’s defence treaty with Manila could draw the United States into a potential China-Philippines conflict over the substantial natural gas deposits or lucrative fishing grounds in disputed territory. “
The Treaty of Manila, signed in 1946, was signed to release the Philippines from US sovereignty, and also includes a defence alliance between the two nations.
Manila has clashed with Beijing on a number of occasions over the South China Sea.
In 1994, China had a similar confrontation by asserting its ownership of Mischief Reef, which was inside the claimed economic exclusion zone of the Philippines.
In 2016, the Philippines won a case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration invalidating China’s claims to almost the entire stretch of sea. China does not recognise the ruling.
The tribunal in The Hague found that China had violated sovereign Filipino rights under the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS).
If China were to launch a significant military threat to the Philippines, the US could have no choice but to step in, risking a skirmish between two of the world’s biggest superpowers.
Worse for the US, this outcome is only more likely now that Beijing’s forces have become emboldened in the region.
US Navy commander, James Kraska, said for Council of Foreign Relations: “The US has lost advantage throughout the spectrum of operations, from low-level interaction against China’s maritime militia to higher-end conflict scenarios.
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“In other words, China has escalation dominance, because it has the power to deter any US turn towards escalation. The US is outmatched in all of the scenarios.”
With the South China Sea standoff still boiling, the US and China will have to become increasingly careful if they are to avoid a disastrous conflict.
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