Is the US preparing for war, or deterring it?

Five “agreed locations” had been previously designated for American military facilities to be established inside Philippine military bases. Their construction, funded with $82-plus million by the US, still had to be completed. Yet last Thursday, the defense chiefs of the US and Philippine governments announced four more new sites in “strategic areas of the country.”

Setting up such military facilities for exclusive use by American forces – to preposition military personnel, equipment and supplies and other uses – is allowed by the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA. This is an executive agreement, signed in 2014, to boost the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a treaty that implements the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951.

Speaking through their respective defense chiefs, the two governments issued a joint statement in Manila, stating:

“Today, the Philippines and the United States are proud to announce their plans to accelerate the full implementation of the [EDCA] with the full agreement to designate four (4) new Agreed Locations in strategic areas of the country and the substantial completion of the projects in the existing five Agreed Locations.”

By allocating $82 million for infrastructure investments at the five existing sites, it pointed out, the US “is proud that these investments are supporting economic growth and job-creation in local Philippine communities.” Both countries have committed “to move quickly in agreeing to the necessary plans and investments” for all such locations.

The added locations, the statement added, “will allow more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, and respond to other shared challenges.” Playing up the humanitarian aspect, it seems, would prettify the EDCA – which for decades, along with the VFA, has been opposed by numerous groups and rural communities for being inimical to Filipino national interests and sovereignty.

But the giveaway phrase “other shared challenges” points to what, for the US, is the hottest issue in the Indo/Asia-Pacific region.

As visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III admitted, for them, gaining military access to facilities in the Philippines is “part of our efforts to modernize our alliance. And these efforts are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea.”

Without citing details, he added that the two sides had discussed “concrete actions to address destabilizing activities in the waters surrounding the Philippines, including the West Philippine Sea.”

During his courtesy call on President Marcos Jr., Austin vowed: “From the defense perspective, we will continue to work together… to build and modernize your capabilities as well as increase our interoperability.”

In reply, Marcos Jr. opined: “It seems to me that the future of the Philippines and, for that matter, the Asia-Pacific, will always have to involve the US simply because those partnerships are so strong and so historically embedded in our common psyches that can only be an advantage to both our countries.”

Last December, Austin openly acknowledged that the US was building a more lethal force posture in the Indo-Pacific as part of its efforts to ensure that China doesn’t dominate the region. Emphasizing that China is “the only country with both the will and, increasingly, the power to reshape its region and the international order to suit its authoritarian preferences,” Austin declared: “So let me be clear – we’re not going to let that happen.”

Another aspect of this concern has to do with China’s threat to invade and reassert its sovereignty over Taiwan. This was pointed out recently by The New York Times, which said that “the plans for a larger US military presence in the Philippines come amid fears about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan.” Its Southeast Asia bureau chief wrote that the US officials regard the Philippines as a “key strategic partner for Washington in the event of a conflict with China” over our close neighbor to the north.

In this regard, the NYT added, “US officials have long eyed access to land in the Philippines’ northernmost territory, as a way to counter China in the event that it attacks Taiwan,” which has been promised protection and continued military assistance by US President Joe Biden.

Turning up the volume of the talk about war, the chief of the US Air Mobility Command, Gen. Mike Minihan, has instructed America’s air force officials to be prepared for a US-China armed conflict over Taiwan in 2025. “I hope I am wrong,” he was quoted as having written, “[but] my gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”

The Pentagon confirmed Minihan had issued the memo, but did not comment.

Also relevant to the issue is the recent visit to South Korea and Japan by the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg. (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the military alliance between 27 European nations and the US, was set up during the Cold War era but it has been retained and even expanded after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.)

Stoltenberg traveled to the two countries – both of them regarded by the US as staunch allies – to seek stronger cooperation with and more NATO “friends” in the Indo-Pacific. He warned that China’s growing assertiveness and collaboration with Russia pose a threat both to Asia and Europe.

“The fact that Russia and China are coming closer and the significant investments and new advanced military capabilities just underlines that China poses a threat [and] challenge also to NATO allies,” Stoltenberg said. “NATO needs to make sure we have friends. It is important to work more closely with our partners in the Indo-Pacific.”

Notably, Austin also first visited South Korea before proceeding to Manila in his most recent trip to this area.

Considering all these revelations from the US and NATO, one may ask: What is the world’s lone superpower thinking? Is the US flexing its military muscles and consolidating its regional and global alliances to deter an impending war with China? Or are these actions meant to prepare for war?

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February 4, 2023

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