US in Asia Pacific

Rebalancing: Philippines, Vietnam & Mutual Convergences

22 Apr, 2014    ·   4398

Vivek Mishra comments on the convergences that may decide the future character of the US 'rebalance'

Vivek Mishra
Vivek Mishra
Research Intern

The Philippines and Vietnam witnessed a prolonged US military presence during the Cold War and today have become the lynchpin of American rebalance aiming to counter China.

What makes them the primary cogs in the American rebalance wheel?

The Philippines: Beyond the Agreement on Subic Bay
The agreement on Subic Bay in 2012 to host US’ ships, marines and aircraft on a semi-permanent basis was crucial. Apart from signalling a reset in US-Philippines bilateral relations, it highlighted a mutual benefit scheme, especially in gaining maritime one-upmanship vis-à-vis China. The Subic Bay is expected to serve as the centre for US military presence, one that provides strategic support to the US ‘Rebalance.’

The American presence in the Subic Bay is expected to hold greater strategic currency than the US Marines’ presence in Darwin, Northern Australia for two reasons; the Subic Bay is the closest the US military presence can get to China and second, unlike Darwin, it will also hold US military hardware thus providing support and service facilities. Besides, the Subic Bay is a strategic gateway to the South China Sea (SCS), an area that the US watches very closely. Since 2012, it has seen the constant presence of submarines, frigates and aircraft carriers. Added to this is the resurgence in US-Philippines naval cooperation particularly through two hyped naval exercises; PHIBLEX and Balakitan.

The Philippines through the US rebalancing seeks to offset the constant Chinese presence in what the former refers to as the West Philippine Sea and the latter as the SCS.  For the US and the Philippines, there are some clear gains through the return of the US military to the Philippines. The Philippines will stand to gain vis-à-vis at least four disputes on territoriality with China; the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, the Second Thomas Shoal, and Mischief Reef. The US presence has provided the necessary incentive for the Philippines to stand for its claims over the Scarborough Shoal. Ever since China has reasserted its claim over the Shoal, the Philippines has not shied from invoking its mutual defence treaty with the US.

Vietnam: Emboldening the Coast Guard & Forging the TPP
Part of the US ‘Rebalance to Asia’ is to do with renewed alliances with countries like Vietnam. Improving Vietnamese maritime capabilities forms an important aspect of American ‘Rebalancing’. There have been some important visits in the last few years to underscore this necessity. Hillary Clinton’s visit to Southeast Asia in 2012 was to find an effective footing to the US ‘Rebalance’ in Vietnam when she asked Vietnam to play a ‘larger regional role’. This was followed by Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Vietnam in December 2013 when he announced an initial commitment of US$32.5 million in new regional and bilateral assistance including US$18 million in new assistance to Vietnam to enhance the capacity of coastal patrol units. Vietnam is one of the top priority countries for the US Department of Defence for ‘enhanced military cooperation’, according to the latest Staff Report prepared for the use of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the US. Improving the operational capabilities of the Vietnamese Coast Guard is among the top priorities of the US ‘Rebalance.’

The US looks at Vietnam as an important cog in the wheel for realising its Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) Dream, viewed by many as the economic dimension of the US ‘Rebalance’. The Obama Administration is likely to use its economic cooperation with Vietnam as the hinge in their bilateral relationship for some time to come. As China continues to oppose the TTP, the US seems to have found the right partner in Vietnam. Besides, the US also supports the efforts by Vietnam and other ASEAN members to negotiate with China for a Code of Conduct in the SCS.

Mutual Convergences
If the Philippines comes across as fulfilling the strategic goals of the US ‘Rebalance’ in a major way, it is Vietnam that appears to be carrying its potential economic aspects. However, it remains to be seen if it will take the combination of the two aspects of ‘Rebalancing’ for the US to create a robust strategic barricade against China in the Asia-Pacific.

For the US, the agenda for now vis-à-vis these two countries seem to be a promotion of mutual cooperation between these countries, apart from their cooperation with itself. Both the countries have some common issues to address with China and therefore their indispensability to the US ‘Rebalancing’. The Mischief Reef and the issue of a Code of Conduct in the SCS remain the common and central concerns of both Vietnam and the Philippines. The US is also working towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the SCS apart from supporting the Philippines’ arbitration against China at the UN. These grounds of convergences for cooperation between the US, the Philippines and Vietnam will portend, in part, the future character of the US Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.