We can argue about whether America has the wherewithal to contain Chinese irredentism, but the responsibility to contain China’s territorial ambitions begins with the states in the region. It is past time for the leaders of Southeast Asia to accept that they cannot canoodle with China via ASEAN and bilateral trade, and then expect America to guard them against Chinese adventurism. Responsibility for regional security begins in region, must be led in region, and the United States should only step in when the maximum concerted efforts of the region’s nations have proven incapable of stopping China. And even then, we should do so as a part of a clear, united front, not as the sole bearer of burdens.
In particular, it is difficult to conjure much sympathy for the Philippines. The late Corazon Aquino called U.S. bases on Philippine soil “an affront to national sovereignty.” We can argue about whether she was right, but what is clear is that once she managed to summarily eject the U.S. Navy from Subic Bay and the Air Force from Clark Air Base, she – and her successors – utterly failed to replace the shield the US military had provided. The Philippine armed forces are a bad joke, first tossing their professionalism to the wind in a series of domestic political interventions, then intentionally weakened by sequential administrations who (not without reason) feared the specter of a military coup.
Such is the lot of a bored military with no external threats. But times have changed, and China’s actions are enabled in no small part by their unvarnished assessment of the Philippine military as being aught more than toy soldiers.
The Philippines is overdue to create an armed force capable of defending the nation. Until they at least begin such an effort in earnest, the US should live by the letter of its treaty obligations, and no more.