THE BLOG
02/24/2014 02:13 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

South China Sea Disputes Enter a Dangerous Phase: The U.S. Pivot Gathers Steam

"At what point do you say: 'Enough is enough'?" Philippine President Benigno Aquino exclaimed in an exclusive interview with the New York Times. It was a forceful call for international support amid intensifying territorial disputes with China. Quite shockingly, he even compared China to Nazi Germany, cautioning the Western powers against appeasing Beijing over disputed maritime features in the Western Pacific. China was infuriated by the comments, dismissing him as an "amateurish" politician.

In many ways, it seems that Aquino has abandoned his earlier efforts -- to no avail -- at reviving communications channels with the Chinese leadership to seek a diplomatic compromise in the South China Sea. But, does he have meaningful external support?

During his recent trip to Asia, I asked British Foreign Secretary William Hague whether the European Union (EU) -- and his country, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council -- is willing to play an active role in resolving territorial disputes in the Western Pacific. After all, the EU has played a proactive role in resolving most pressing international security issues such as the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear conundrum. And as the Asia-Pacific region emerges as the geopolitical pivot of history, where booming consumer markets increasingly serve as the engine of the world economy, the international community has a stake in ensuring stability and the unimpeded flow of trade and investment across the region.

As expected, Hague was extremely cautious with reiterating Britain's commitment to democracy and stability in Asia, without necessarily irking the most important economy in the region, China. Other leading European countries such as Germany and France, which have developed massive investment and trade relations with China in recent decades, have displayed considerable sensitivity to Beijing's geopolitical interests. But given Britain's close ties to Washington and its (still) relatively modest economic stakes in China -- although bilateral trade hit a record high in 2013 -- many in Manila believe that it's far from unrealistic to seek strategic sympathy from European powers such as London.

In fact, Hague emphasized his country's commitment to a rule-based, peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but fell short of taking a direct stance on the ownership of contested maritime features. Nonetheless, his endorsement of international law as a basis for ensuring regional peace and security could be interpreted as an implicit endorsement of the Philippines' legal challenge to China's notorious 9-dashline doctrine, which, many neighboring countries contend, contravenes the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Among Filipino policy-makers, who have nervously watched China's rising territorial assertiveness in recent years, there is a growing feeling that the tide is finally turning in their favor. And this may explain Aquino's decision to risk a permanent breakdown in Philippine-China bilateral relations by likening China to Nazi Germany, and demanding more support from Western powers lest a regional conflict erupts. The Philippines' emergence as a leading emerging market in Southeast Asia has generated additional confidence over its (presumed) importance to Western powers.

Allies to the Rescue

Although lacking even a minimum deterrence capability against China, which is expected to outspend the combined military expenditures of Europe's leading powers next year, the Philippines is relying on increased strategic commitment from two key actors: Tokyo and Washington. And to be fair, there are signs that the Aquino administration could benefit from such gamble.

The Shinzo Abe administration, which enjoys considerable legislative support in the Japanese parliament, is pushing for the revision of Japan's pacifist constitution, paving the way for a full-blown military alliance between Manila and Tokyo. The U.S., meanwhile, is finally signaling its support for the Philippines in an event of war in the Western Pacific, with a new bilateral defense pact entering the final phase of negotiations.

Three years into the U.S.' pivot to Asia, we may finally see a more concrete and decisive effort at "constraining" China by a burgeoning counter-alliance. With the latest Gallup Poll suggesting that China -- not Iran or North Korea -- is seen as America's No. 1 enemy, the Obama administration could count on greater public sympathy for increased U.S. military footprint in Asia.

The Pivot Has Arrived

In geopolitical terms, recent years have been particularly tough for the Philippines. Bilateral and regional negotiations over a diplomatic resolution of the South China Sea disputes have stalled, while China has stepped up its para-military patrols across the area. The Philippines lost the Scarborough Shoal to China in mid-2012, and came dangerously close to losing the Second Thomas Shoal the following year. Manila took the risky decision to challenge Beijing's maritime claims at The Hague without coordinating a similar move by other claimant states such as Vietnam and Japan.

As a result, China was able to isolate the Philippines in various international fora, while leveraging its massive aid and investment pledges to woo other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Since 2012, China has introduced two amendments to its maritime law in the southern province of Hainan, which have reinforced Beijing's jurisdiction over disputed waters. And there are fears that China will impose a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

There is not even a single Southeast Asian state that can militarily challenge such prospective measure. Throughout 2013, the Philippines and the U.S. also struggled to iron out a new military agreement, which could boost American rotational military presence in the South China Sea. Pushed against the wall, President Aquino painstakingly sought direct negotiations with the top Chinese leadership. Reportedly, the overtures where turned down, unless the Philippines dropped its legal challenge to China's territorial claims.

This year, however, has seen a swift movement towards greater American presence in the region. Much of it was facilitated by the massive deployment of American troops during the Haiyan crisis in the Philippines. Japan also made the historical decision to deploy its largest ever post-war humanitarian contingent to the Philippines, with more than a thousand members of the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) vigorously assisting the victims of super typhoon in the Philippines.

The New Geopolitical Landscape

This was beyond just a soft power victory for Philippines' allies. Filipino officials (and their American counterparts) were quick to point out the necessity of greater American military presence in the country, if the Philippines were to effectively cope with humanitarian and security challenges. During the ASEAN-Japan Summit in late 2013, Tokyo also promised up to $20 billion in aid and investment pledges to the Southeast Asian countries. Both the U.S. and Japan presented themselves as the anchor of stability and prosperity in the region, pushing back against China's rising influence in Asia.

Much to the delight of the Philippines, the U.S. upped the ante in the following months by vigorously criticizing China's quasi-legal and para-military maneuvers in the South China Sea. Then, in early February, the U.S. made the unprecedented decision to directly question China's claims in the South China Sea. Danny Russel, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, argued before the U.S. Congress that "any Chinese claim to maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law," and encouraged Beijing to display its respect for international law by "clarifying or adjusting its claim[s]" accordingly.

Russel's statements marked a remarkable departure from Washington's careful refusal in the past to take any direct position on the disputes. Previously, the Obama administration tried to present itself as a neutral external party that was only concerned with freedom of navigation in international waters. This was followed by the mid-February visit by U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, where he raised hops of direct American assistance to the Philippines in an event of conflict in the South China Sea by stating, "Of course we would help you. I don't know what that help would be, specifically. I mean we have an obligation because we have a treaty."

Above all, the Philippines and the U.S. are expected to sign a new defense pact, to be cemented by Obama's planned visit to Manila in late-April. For the Philippines, an upgraded military alliance could potentially mean, among other things, a considerable increase in American rotational military deployments and (quite possibly) temporary access to sophisticated military hardware. The ultimate aim is to deter further Chinese incursions into what the Philippines believes is its rightful maritime territories under the provisions of UNCLOS.

Overall, Aquino may have risked a permanent estrangement with the Chinese leadership over his fiery rhetoric. But it is hoping that rising international concerns over the South China Sea disputes will translate into greater external support against China. As a result, diplomacy has seemingly taken the backseat.