China, the Philippines and Problems for the Pacific Pivot

China, the Philippines and Problems for the Pacific Pivot
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With Egypt in flames, the Russian reset in ruins, and the near-daily revelation of new surveillance surprises from the Snowden flash-drives, there's little appetite on the part of U.S. policymakers for a new foreign policy test. And yet just as the sun never set on the British Empire, the world never ceases to spin up challenges to America, the reluctant superpower.

Witness developments in the Philippines -- an American ally, at least according to the Mutual Defense Treaty signed by the two countries in August 1951.

This month in Quezon City, a new round of the so-called 2-plus-2 talks -- between the U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State and their Filipino counterparts -- will focus on increasing, in Filipino parlance, the "rotational presence" of U.S. troops in the country. The talks are a pivot back to the U.S.-Philippine relationship of an earlier era -- reversing 20 years of drift dating to the eviction of U.S. troops from Clark Air Force Base and the naval base at Subic Bay.

The turn comes as Filipino protests pressure the government to protect the Scarborough Shoal from Chinese efforts to assert their claim to the atoll, nearly 1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland and more than 500 miles from the nearest Chinese island, but just 125 miles off the Philippine coast. Having shooed away Philippine fishing boats from the vicinity, China is now reportedly building structures on the shoal.

To Filipinos, it's a replay of what happened further south, at a scattering of high-tide rocks called Mischief Reef -- a coral donut a few kilometers in diameter -- which the Chinese navy occupied nearly 20 years ago after Philippine naval vessels left the area undefended during a monsoon. Today, Mischief Reef hosts a four-story structure complete with helipad, constructed by Chinese military engineers, and looking more like an ocean oil rig than an atoll.

It's all part of the scramble to claim boundary islands, thereby extending one's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), for command of the sea lanes as well as the rights to the resources beneath them. As a Chinese general said several years ago about the rocks of Mischief, "This reef is quite suitable for building airports and ports, which can be used to control the entire Nansha (China's name for the Philippine's Spratly Islands) region once they are built."

Not surprisingly, Philippine officials have begun to speak out. "Our region needs to know that we are steadfastly for peace but that we stand ready to tap every resource, to call on every alliance [and] to do what is necessary to defend what is ours," said Albert del Rosario, Foreign Secretary of the Philippines, and one part of the Philippine half of the 2-plus-2.

In his reference to tapping every resource, the Secretary must have been speaking metaphorically, because the Philippines in recent years has yielded to a veritable economic invasion of its metal and mineral resources - and it's the Chinese who are doing the tapping.

Chinese entities are active in 26 current mining projects in 16 Philippine provinces, extracting 11 different metals and minerals. These are major mining projects, not the off-the-books Chinese bootleg mines periodically raided by Philippine authorities, as in 2010 and again in 2013, to produce an anti-corruption headline or two. All told, this is tens of billions in mineral wealth, extracted from the Philippines and funneled into the Chinese economy -- and the Chinese military that threatens Philippine maritime claims.

Indeed, even as tension over the boundary islands ratchets up, the Philippines' principal mining agency has announced plans for joint exploration for rare earth elements with the state-run China Geological Survey. The Philippine mining authority indicated that initial exploration will focus on rare earths associated with copper deposits. If so, they'll have plenty of places to look, as Chinese entities are currently operating eight Filipino copper mines.

China's simultaneous inside and outside game, by turns threatening the Philippines while also investing in it, points up the asymmetry in the competition between the U.S. and China in the Pacific Rim. China meshes military, political and economic domains as different strands of a single overriding strategy. The notion that "private" Chinese companies -- during a period when the Chinese navy is probing and pushing the Philippines over South China Sea rights -- would elect on their own to finance several dozen major mining projects in the country is as unlikely as, well... as the U.S. Government directing dozens of private (no air quotes) U.S. companies to invest billions of dollars in furtherance of American strategic interests.

Not one American dollar would be spent in support of such a venture, and not one Chinese yuan would be spent without it.

And so here we are: China challenges the Philippines' sovereignty and sea rights, with an intensity some predict makes military conflict only a matter of time. The Philippines then turns to the U.S., treaty-bound to fight alongside Filipino forces, now as in 1951. All the while, under the U.S. security umbrella, at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer, American forces protect the Philippines' right to surrender its natural resource wealth -- to the very same Chinese.

Is this what John F. Kennedy had in mind when he intoned that we would "pay any price, [and] bear any burden?" Does it fall to the U.S. to "support any friend" and "oppose any foe" when the friend has invited the foe to make an economic meal of its prime resources?

Will that decidedly undiplomatic question be on the docket for the 2-plus-2 talks? Not likely. But maybe it should be -- against the possibility that one day, perhaps all too soon, the U.S. will be pulled into a conflict to defend an ally who has already surrendered its economy to its enemy.

Such are the uncharted waters of the Pacific Pivot.

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