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Hither and Yon

Forbes.com: U.S. Asian Allies Ask: Is U.S. Ready To Fight China Over Small Islets?

President Obama’s much-hyped “pivot” to Asia is leading to misunderstandings between what America’s Asian allies expect and what the U.S. is likely to do in case serious trouble blows up in the seas and small islands claimed by China all around its periphery.

The possibility for misunderstanding is most obvious in the Philippines where the U.S. and the Philippines signed a ten-year “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” (EDCA) for U.S. troops to rotate in and out of Philippine bases. The pact could bring U.S. forces back to the Philippines in large numbers for the first time since the Philippine Senate in 1991 refused to renew the lease for two of the largest U.S. overseas bases.

Quite aside from leftist protests and questions about whether the agreement violates the Philippines constitution, the most serious misunderstanding focuses on how the U.S. would respond against Chinese encroachment on Philippine territory far out in the South China Sea.

“Expectations are not matching,” says Carlos Conde, a long-time journalist now representing Human Rights Watch in the Philippines. “Filipinos before Obama came were made to think this would be a chance for American to restate its commitments. A lot of Filipinos expect more. They think China is a bully. That’s how the Philippine government has managed the conversation.”

Map of various countries occupying the Spratly...
Map of countries occupying the Spratly Islands (Wikipedia)

In fact, it’s quite possible the Americans will take an active role if China were to attempt to take over all the Spratly Islands. China already controls several of them. In keeping with its claim to the entire South China Sea, China also challenges not only the Philippines but also Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan, that is the anti-communist Republic of China, for control of the rest of the Spratlys.

In Manila U.S. military officers and diplomats are talking to Philippine officials about setting up facilities on small islands near the long southwestern Philippine island province of Palawan, the closest jumping off point to the Spratlys. That idea remains non-publicized for now while the spotlight shines on the return of much larger U.S. forces to Subic Bay, once America’s largest overseas naval base, and Clark, the largest overseas U.S. air base in its heyday.

The U.S. encounters a misunderstanding of quite a different sort in the wake of Obama’s pledge while in Tokyo to live up to its treaty obligation to defend Japanese territory — including, of course, the islets known as the Senkakus to the Japanese, the Diaoyu to the Chinese, in the East China Sea.

The obvious question is whether the U.S. would really like to go to war with China if the Chinese carried out a lightning strike, as some believe possible, to loosen the Japanese grip on the Senkakus. Both Japan and China claim the islands are within their 200-mile exclusive economic zones though they’re closer to the nearest islands in Okinawa prefecture than they are to mainland China. (They’re slightly closer to Taiwan, which also claims them but not too loudly.)

Less obvious is what Obama’s commitment to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe really means when it comes to a couple of other small disputed islets known as Dokdo to the Koreans and Takeshima to the Japanese. They’re out there in what’s known as the East Sea in Korea and the Sea of Japan in Japan, and the Koreans firmly hold them with a police garrison permanently posted on one of them.

Dokdo Islands
Dokdo Islands, aka Takeshima (KOREA.NET )

Actually, Dokdo/Takeshima are no more than a pair of enormous rocks whose only civilian inhabitants are an aging couple that runs a post office. Fishermen (and tourists ferried over on day trips) come and g0 but don’t live there. To the Koreans, they’re of symbolic significance as reminders of Korean defiance of Japanese rule, which lasted for 35 years until the Japanese surrender in 1945. The Koreans most definitely are not going to consider the Japanese claim, which the Japanese refuse to relinquish.

So there you have it. The Americans just wish the whole Dokdo dispute would go away and refuse to get involved. Still, Obama’s assurance of U.S. support of Japan under its treaty obligation has raised eyebrows — and provoked commentary — in Korea, also bound to the U.S. in a defense treaty. Some days, Dokdo is of such emotional significance as to vie for headlines with the North Korean nuclear issue.

And that’s to say nothing of Japan’s claims to islands seized by Soviet army troops off northern Hokkaido in the last week of World War II. Latter-day Russia under President Putin seems no more inclined to consider returning any of them than did the old Soviet regime, but nobody expects anyone to go to war for them.

So which is more likely to explode into open conflict first — the Spratlys or the Senkakus? The betting would probably be the latter while China engages in diplomacy all around the South China Sea. In the Philippines, though, U.S. forces under the new agreement are eager to “preposition” much needed materiel in case of they need supplies in a hurry.

That’s something they were unable to do under a Visiting Forces Agreement under which the U.S. has had a small rotational force in the southwestern city of Zamboanga since 1999 advising Philippine forces in pursuit of Islamic terrorist groupings. That’s a conflict that percolates on and on. The other day Philippine marines killed a couple of dozen Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in a battle on a remote mountainside in the Sulu archipelago — an event unnoted outside the Philippines.
But what will the U.S. do about the specter of the much greater fear of China? “Obama made a lot of people ask, ‘What are you talking about,’ when he said the U.S. ‘is not here to confront China,’” says Carlos Conde. “The U.S. pivot to Asia has to do with China. It’s in the interests of the U.S. to be prepared in case something goes wrong.”
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