04/30/2014 09:56 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

Obama Wins Back Lost Advantage in the Philippines As He Dabbles, Fitfully and Perhaps Fatefully, in the Ukraine Crisis

As the US announced more sure to be ineffective sanctions against Russia in a dragging Ukraine crisis, President Barack Obama wrapped up his week-long trip to the Asia-Pacific with reaffirming America's commitment to defend the Philippines against attack. And as he did so, he came away with a new deal for basing US forces there 22 years after a series of missteps led to a US pull-out from the island archipelago (and in Subic Bay one of the biggest naval bases in the world) that had been closely affiliated with America since the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Obama had previously visited the other three nations on his Asia-Pacific tour, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia. Though the first US president to visit Malaysia since the 1960s, this unusually well-traveled American had previously visited the Muslim majority nation next door to Singapore. Obama had never been to the Philippines before, but he made up for lost time by closing the biggest deal between our two nations since US forces were unceremoniously shown the door in the Reagan and Bush I years.

It's a big development, but it's been so long in the making and so frequently telegraphed already that it's hardly a surprise. For China, which according to a new measurement will overtake the US later this year as the world's leading economic power, has been sniffing all over Filipino interests and even territory, claiming waters and land not far from Philippine shores. And Filipino forces, already in danger of being overawed by China, scrappy though they are, were seriously over-matched even before the big Chinese military build-up. The relatively puny armed forces of the Philippines -- the flagship of the Philippine Navy is a converted US Coast Guard cutter -- are simply no match for China.

The 1983 assassination of former Philippine Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. just moments after stepping onto the tarmac at Manila International Airport after returning from exile in Boston set in motion the events that led to the overthrow of the Marcos regime and the eviction of the US from its great naval and air bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field, respectively. Here you see Aquino aboard the plane approaching Manila discussing his return and the mystery about his reception, a mystery you hear solved with the sound of gun shots right after he gets off the airliner.

Enter the US, with a renewed opportunity to get its alliance with the Philippines right as part of the Asia-Pacific pivot, in which America shifts away from its fateful post-9/11 fixation on the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to the rising Asia-Pacific, and of course the would-be superpower there in the form of the People's Republic of China.

The Asia-Pacific is already the number one destination for American exports. Half of the economic production on the planet takes place there. With China seeking hegemony there with its breath-taking claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, one of the world's most strategically significant bodies of water, and claiming an air defense zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands long a part of Japan, it should be no surprise that the US has committed to place 60 percent of its global naval assets in the Asia-Pacific by the end of the decade.

Obama joined President Benigno Aquino III Monday in Manila, Philippines, in addressing new defense deals allowing U.S. military greater access to Philippine bases.

The US and the Philippines, now a key member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have a long and tangled history, usually friendly, frequently complex. After the smashing US naval victory in the Battle of Manila Bay ended the Spanish-American War and cemented, just as much as Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, America's arrival as a global power, the US reneged on its agreement to have only refueling bases in a freed Philippines and worked to claim Spain's colony for itself. A bloody war against the Philippine Insurrection was the result and -- contrary to the modern belief of some that no guerrilla war can be won by an occupying power -- the conflict ended in America's decisive victory.

As colonial overseers, the US proved relatively benign and a mostly friendly partnership emerged, with Filipinos very much in the junior position. The Philippines afforded America important forward bases in the Pacific; America afforded the Philippines protection and development and, off in the distance, the promise of independence.

That oft promised day finally came after the US liberated the Philippines from Japanese occupation in World War II. Then General Douglas MacArthur, ignoring recommendations to bypass the Philippines in the post-Pearl Harbor island-hopping campaign across the Pacific, made good on the grandiloquent promise he made when forced to flee in early 1942, "I shall return." MacArthur, former head of the US Army in the 1930s, had, after retiring, subsequently been field marshal of the Philippine armed forces and, when the Japanese attack came right after Pearl Harbor, commander of US forces in the Western Pacific.

Not that the imperial relationship did not continue. A cadre of Filipino stewards, for example, as I came to experience, continued to serve US Navy officers around the world for decades. The great naval base at Subic Bay, America's largest outside the US, was a critical staging area for the adventure in Vietnam. And there was an active US military assistance program, which I helped in, to deal with persistent insurgencies by Islamic jihadists -- an early harbinger of what was to to come -- and Communist guerrillas, guided by the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, from the end of the '60s on.

Throughout, the US was aligned with the increasingly corrupt Ferdinand Marcos regime. During the Reagan years, things became even more blatant, and reactionary elements felt emboldened enough to assassinate a popular opposition figure, former Senator Benigno Aquino, immediately after he returned from exile by flying into Manila International Airport in 1983.

Within a few years, Marcos was forced from power, his allies in Washington wisely deciding not to contest events. But the new administration, headed by Aquino's widow Corazon Aquino, rejected the ongoing presence of US forces in the Philippines, leaving first the Reagan Administration and then the Bush Administration little choice in the matter. So the massive US bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field closed up shop.

Now, with the agreement between Obama and President Benigno Aquino III, US forces are coming back. The units, naval, air, and ground, won't be permanently based in the Philippines. But they will rotate in on a permanent cycle of rotations, sharing space with Filipino forces in an arrangement to be revisited in 10 years.

It's a more collegial relationship than existed in the past. But it only came about in the first place because the Philippines finds China's moves so threatening.

Compared to the Philippines, China is a colossus. As true as that is in present military terms, it will only become more so in the future in overall terms.

Wednesday's lead story in the Financial Times is "China To Overtake US As Top Economic Power This Year." FT economics editor Chris Giles dictates from London: "The US is on the brink of losing its status as the world's largest economy, and is likely to slip behind China this year, sooner than widely anticipated, according to the world's leading statistical agencies. The US has been the global leader since overtaking the UK in 1872. Most economists previously thought China would pull ahead in 2019."

Of course, reading the fine print, i.e., the article itself, one finds that the dramatic acceleration in China's status is due to a shift in the measuring technique. Instead of measuring economic output -- problematic, goes the new theory, due to tricky exchange rates -- the new approach measures equivalent purchasing power.

But whether you buy the new technobabble or the old, the fact is that China will soon lead the world in gross domestic product, though, given its vast population, its per capita GDP will still trail that of the US.

Here in the US, however, we continue to be mostly distracted by other matters.

The Middle East peace process has, quite predictably, once again collapsed. I'm glad I never wrote a column about it.

And the Ukraine crisis, triggered by Russian President Vladimir Putin's unsurprisingly very bad reaction to the overthrow of Ukraine's Russia-friendly president while the Sochi Winter Olympics were ending in Russian triumph, drags on.

As Obama accomplished something quite real in the Asia-Pacific -- reassuring allies and potential allies, politely delivering a message to China, winning back important access in the Philippines lost during the Reagan and Bush Administrations -- his administration and the European Union pursued something unreal, announcing new sanctions against individual Russians for their involvement in Russia's strategy to foment discord in Ukraine and keep that nation, which is only a few hundred miles from Moscow, out of NATO.

The sanctions strategy pursued by the US is not so much intended to change Russia's approach as it's intended to make it appear that the US is trying to change Russia's approach.

Will it satisfy, or at least shut up, anti-Russian red hots in Congress like John McCain? Will it placate elements in the State Department and the internationalist lobby that want a US national security policy based on humanitarian interventionism?

Perhaps not at first. But ultimately it probably will, for there are no good military options for the US in this crisis. So why not pretend that something else is being done, even if it's largely irrelevant and ineffective? The alternative would be to admit that their take was wrong all along.

But even though the sanctions don't bite much, they do sting. Let's hope that the US and EU moves in the Ukraine crisis don't help prompt the forging of a China/Russia alliance.

In that regard, I'm sure that Wednesday's announcement of joint naval drills between China and Russia in the East China Sea is just a coincidence.

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