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Hither and Yon

Ironies abound in Subic Bay and Vietnam: U.S. Navy welcomed back with open arms

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
SUBIC BAY, Philippines ― The presence here of the USS Shiloh, a cruiser laden with missiles and cannon, reminds visitors of a bygone era. It was almost 25 years ago that the U.S. Navy had to abandon Subic Bay and the U.S. Air Force evacuated Clark Air Base, across the mountains to the east, after the Philippine Senate voted “no” to renewing the lease to these historic bases.
A lot has changed since then. The Americans persisted in saying the Shiloh was on a “routine” port call, but its mission showed that the U.S. is standing behind Philippine defiance of Chinese claims to the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands southwest of here and the Scarborough shoal to the west. So doing, the Philippines finds common cause with Vietnam, which, like the Philippines, also has a stake in the Spratlys.
There is supreme irony in this realignment of forces against China’s policy of expansionism, literally, in the form of reclamation of 2,000 acres from the shallow waters around reefs and atolls long held by the Chinese. Satellite imagery reveals construction of an air strip big enough for any warplane as well as other facilities clearly dedicated to military purposes.
The irony of the Philippines needing American forces after having kicked them off America’s largest overseas naval base here at Subic and the largest U.S. Air Force base outside the U.S. at Clark is amazing.
OK, the U.S.-Philippine alliance has endured ever since the surrender of the Japanese who took over the Philippines for more than three awful years in World War II, but U.S. forces when they left here were not expected to return. Now it seems they’re more badly needed than they were when Subic and Clark were essentially rear base areas for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War and also for U.S. military adventures in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The irony is far more pronounced when it comes to the budding military relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam. Who would have imagined that the U.S. Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, would be going to Hanoi where a Vietnamese military band greeted him with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner?” Will the U.S. be sending war materiel to a country whose rulers ran a war against the Americans that ended in humiliating defeat for the U.S.-backed Saigon regime? Americans are still trying to deal with that disgrace.
The specter of renewed U.S. strength in Southeast Asia has huge implications for the U.S. in Northeast Asia as well. The Americans had just about abandoned South Korea before the North Korean invasion of June 1950. Only about 500 U.S. advisers were still in the country, and the U.S. had failed to provide the South Koreans with heavy weapons needed to stave off North Korean tanks as they poured south. For several years now, the U.S. has been preparing to pull out of Camp Casey on the historic “invasion” route to Seoul while planning to move the U.S. military headquarters from the Yongsan base to Pyeongtaek. The U.S. now has 28,500 troops in the South ― a number that could go down still further.
The Chinese threat in the South China Sea suggests it may be wishful thinking to believe that China will really persuade North Korea to give up its overt hostility toward South Korea. Sure, the Chinese don’t want a war disturbing the “stability” of the Korean Peninsula, but there’s no telling what they’d do if North Korea ever began making good on some of its threats.
The standoff in Northeast Asia is infinitely complicated by the U.S. relationship with Japan, where the U.S. has its biggest bases in the region on Okinawa. The fact that Japan and South Korea are unable to resolve longstanding disputes on comfort women, textbooks and, of course, the twin Dokdo islets in the waters between the two countries plays into the hands of both China and North Korea. It seems inconceivable that South Koreans would want Japan as an ally in a second Korean War even though Japan would have to serve as a rear base area as it did in the first Korean War.
Alliances, though, are always shifting. South Koreans are getting along better than ever with China. They certainly don’t support Japan in its hold over the Senkakus, the island grouping that China calls Diaoyu. South Korea would surely not want U.S. forces taking off from Korean bases in support of Japan militarily in the East China Sea.
In a time of shifting alliances, you can’t be sure who will be siding with whom. It would be nice to think that China would rein in its expansionist policies in the interests of peace, harmony and amity in the region, but history suggests you can’t count on common sense to prevail.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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