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Hither and Yon

Yankee, don’t go home just yet; Unlikely ‘strategic partnerships’ take shape in East Asia

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
Here’s a twist on the shifting course of the recent military history of the region. The Philippines and Vietnam are about to become “strategic partners” in common cause against, yes, the Chinese.
For those who may have forgotten, the U.S., having ruled the Philippines for nearly half a century, fought a prolonged war against the Vietnamese forces that finally defeated the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese more than 40 years ago. For prosecution of the war, the Americans counted on enormous naval and air resources in the Philippines. Might Clark Air Base at Angeles City, north of Manila, and Subic Bay, across the mountains northwest, someday become bases for latter-day Vietnamese forces fighting the Chinese?
If that rhetorical question seems far-fetched, there is no doubt the Philippines and Vietnamese might need one another if they are to stave off the Chinese claim to the entire South China Sea.
It’s inconceivable that the Philippines and Vietnam would fight together to drive the Chinese from the Paracel Islands, which were all Vietnamese before the Chinese took them over from the South Vietnamese near the end of the Vietnam War. It’s not out of the question, though, that Vietnamese air and naval forces could use the Philippine bases in case of a broadening conflict in which their own bases across the South China Sea were under attack, blockaded or just threatened.
The idea of a “strategic partnership” between the Philippines and Vietnam raises another question. The Philippines remains bound to the U.S. in a longstanding alliance that has grown in importance in recent years as a result of expansion of Chinese bases in the Spratly Islands, where the Philippines also has installations.
If the Philippines and Vietnam become “partners,” would Vietnam by default become a de facto American ally? Vietnam and the U.S. have also been talking about “strategic partnership,” just a step below an alliance.
If Vietnam and the Philippines do become “partners,” the Philippines should have considerably more to benefit from the relationship. That’s because Vietnam as a military power has gained strength and respect on the basis of prolonged wars first with the French colonialists and then with the Americans.
The Vietnamese showed their toughness and resilience by staving off the Chinese, their one-time ally, the source of arms and advice, when they battled the Chinese along their northern border several years after what the Vietnamese call “the American time” in Vietnam.
The Philippines did not have to fight to persuade the Americans to give up their bases. The Americans pulled out of Clark shortly before Mount Pinatubo, in the Zambales mountains between Clark and Subic, erupted in June 1991, spewing thick volcanic ash over Clark and the surrounding countryside. Then, several months later, the Philippine Senate voted down renewal of the lease on Clark, Subic and other smaller outposts. The American “time” as a military power in the Philippines was over.
Or so it seemed. In fact, the Philippine forces are so weak that they still count on the Americans for defense while increasingly concerned about the Chinese. The Philippine president, Benigno Aquino III, has admitted that “many decades of corruption, abuse and lack of attention” has decimated the Philippine Air Force, once “one of the strongest air forces in Asia.”
The Philippine Air Force, now one of the weakest anywhere, operates only a score or so of helicopters and one or two cargo planes. A dozen FA-50 fighter jets, on order from Korean Aerospace Industries, may one day be of use in fighting Muslim guerrillas in the large southern island of Mindanao and Communist forces up and down the country, but they’re no match for the Chinese.
A Philippine military spokesman described the emphasis on “internal security.” Only “in the succeeding horizons,” he said vaguely, would the Philippine forces “go toward external defense” ― an admission of the weakness of the Philippine military establishment, including the Army and Navy as well as the Air Force. With “our meager financial resources,” said Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, the armed forces would have to “acquire reliable platforms at very reasonable costs” ― an impossibility even with the U.S. putting up $50 million for buying a few second-hand assets.
Vietnam, however, is not the only potential “strategic partner” that the Philippines is courting. The Philippines also counts on Japan to provide much needed patrol planes, along with advanced radar equipment, for tracking Chinese submarines.
Just what the Philippines, or the Japanese or the Vietnamese, would do if they found any Chinese subs is another matter. Much would depend on the response of the Americans. For all the U.S. firepower, American policymakers would be reluctant to go to war against China in defense of the Spratlys. But what if the Chinese attacked the Japanese-held Senkakus in the East China Sea? How would the Americans and Japanese respond then ― and what about the Philippines and Vietnam?
We won’t know the answers unless someone opens fire ― and the target fires back. Hopefully, in a time of shifting alliances, that won’t happen and all such questions will remain hypothetical.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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