Old allies, new dynamics in U.S. pivot

Posted on August 31, 2012

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SINGAPORE – The US’s “pivot” strategy towards the Asia-Pacific aims to reinvigorate security alliances with its established partners in the region. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Thailand have long been US treaty allies, affording them privileged access to US armaments and in the case of the Philippines a mutual defense guarantee if attacked by a third party.

The Philippines and Thailand, however, have had decidedly different responses to the US’s renewed security engagement with the region. While Manila has warmly welcomed the US’s military presence, Bangkok has adopted a hedging strategy to preserve its vibrant ties with China. Washington’s ties with Bangkok and Manila are now influenced by two crucial factors: (1) the perception of an existential threat and (2) domestic political and economic interests.

A key strategic hub for American forces, the Philippines has offered the US greater access to its military facilities in exchange for assistance in the modernization of its military. The Philippine government announced on August 24 that it welcomed America’s plan to deploy “X-band”, a powerful new early warning radar, in Japan and the Philippines. The plan is seen by some as the centerpiece of the US’s defense build-up in Asia to counter threats from nuclear North Korea and to contain China’s rising military power.

As tensions mount in the South China Sea, there is now a new facet to the US-Philippines alliance, ie China’s emergence as an existential threat. The mutual defense treaty, which dates back to 1951, is perceived as a deterrent to China’s creeping assertiveness in nearby maritime areas, including the contested Spratly Islands.

Following a naval stand-off between Manila and Beijing in April this year, Washington pledged to triple its military assistance to Manila, deployed two US nuclear-armed submarines to make symbolic port calls at Subic, and sent thousands of American troops and American warships for joint military exercises with their Filipino counterparts.

Thailand has been a US treaty ally since 1954, a designation that was upgraded to major non-NATO ally in 2003 as a reward for Bangkok’s cooperation in Washington’s global war on terror. Now, with enhanced commercial and defense ties with China, Bangkok is less willing to open its territory to facilitate US strategic rebalancing.

Most notably, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s cabinet decided in June to allow parliament to scrutinize a US NASA request to use U-tapao airbase for atmospheric studies. After opposition lawmakers argued that approval of the request could jeopardize Thailand’s vibrant trade ties with China, NASA withdrew its request after the Thais missed a June 26 deadline to respond.

Since the Vietnam War, U-tapao has been used by US aircraft to support military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as humanitarian interventions, including in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. US troops also have special access to U-tapao through the annual Cobra Gold war games held in Thailand and staged with various international actors. NASA initially planned to use the airbase for a six-week climate study but the request was viewed in some quarters as a veiled attempt to spy on China.

Unlike the 1960s and 1970s when China backed communist guerillas in Thailand, Washington and Bangkok no longer have a common security threat to motivate a significant enhancement of their existing alliance. This “threat deficit” has significantly affected US-Thai cooperation in recent years. Though Thailand may be wary of China’s perceived growing assertiveness, it nonetheless highly values its robust political and economic relations with Beijing.

While US-Thai strategic relations have arguably stalled, Thailand and China upgraded their ties to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” during Yingluck’s visit with a high level military delegation to Beijing in April. One reason why Sino-Thai relations are strong is the absence of contentious territorial disputes. (Unlike Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, Thailand has no claim to contested areas in the South China Sea.)

Strategic economics
Thailand’s recent strategic behavior has been driven clearly by economic interests. Bangkok has benefitted enormously from China’s economic rise. Although the US remains a major investor in Thailand, China is now Thailand’s largest export market. Sino-Thai trade was valued at US$64.7 billion in 2011, overshadowing US-Thai trade of $35 billion in the same period.

China has also pledged strong assistance in Thailand’s reconstruction and water management projects in the wake of last year’s devastating floods. As Thailand benefits from China’s soft power diplomacy, it is not surprising that Bangkok has adopted a hedging strategy.

In the Philippines, the US is the largest source of foreign direct investment and second-largest trade partner. In 2011, US-Philippines bilateral trade reached $13.6 billion, slightly higher than the $12.1 billion value of China-Philippines commerce. China’s economic muscle flexing has in instances pushed the Philippines closer to the US. When Beijing recently tried to sanction Manila by banning Philippine banana imports, a move that threatened to hit come 200,000 Filipino farmers and weaken exports, the US offered to buy the surplus bananas.

The stagnation of US-Thai defense ties is likewise tied to Thailand’s turbulent domestic politics. Since the 2006 military ouster of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a focus on domestic politics has come up at the expense of foreign relations. The opposition Democrat Party claimed that Yingluck would approve the NASA proposal in exchange for granting her exiled, criminally convicted brother Thaksin a visa to travel to the US. While the NASA project was cancelled, Thaksin was nonetheless given a visa, with the caveat that he not travel to Washington, according to press reports.

In the Philippines, domestic politics under Benigno Aquino’s administration have been conducive to a vibrant US-Philippines alliance. Most political leaders, apart from left-leaning nationalistic parties, have backed Aquino’s efforts to bolster ties with the US to counterbalance China’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea. He has notably made a number of trips to Washington to request stronger strategic cooperation and arms transfers.

Unlike his predecessor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Aquino has appeared to be less receptive to Beijing’s dangled commercial incentives. Elected on an anti-corruption platform, Aquino has cancelled certain Chinese-funded projects which were marred by irregularities. His diplomatic balancing is reflective of the national mood: a Social Weather Station survey conducted in the second quarter showed that 55% of Filipinos have little trust in China, representing a record low, while the US notched a public trust rating of 62%.

The convergence and divergence of threat perceptions has determined the depth of US defense cooperation with the Philippines and Thailand as Washington attempts to implement its “pivot” policy in Asia. Local political and economic concerns have dictated how both countries have received Washington’s strategic overtures. Whether the split among two of the US’s top traditional allies will undermine the “pivot” policy’s overall effectiveness will be closely watched and aggravated as much as possible by China.

Julius Cesar I Trajano

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Posted in: Economy, Politics