On Wednesday, a Philippine warship attempted to detain Chinese boats fishing in waters that both sides claim as part of their territory, but was stopped by two Chinese surveillance vessels. In what has been the tensest moment militarily for the Philippines in years, the government warned the Chinese ambassador that the Philippines was "prepared to secure its sovereignty" in the disputed areas, and the two sides are still trying to find a diplomatic resolution to the standoff, while continuing to send ships on Thursday.
The incident highlights some of the potential pitfalls facing the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia," and the risks that could result from America's efforts to strengthen alliances with countries around China's periphery. To make sure that these alliances protect U.S. interests, the United States needs to strike a careful balance, supporting its Philippine ally without emboldening it to take risks that could drag the United States into dangerous crises or conflicts with China.
In the months preceding this latest naval dust-up in the South China Sea, the United States has paid increasing attention to the Philippines in an effort to strengthen defense and security cooperation. The warship that stopped the Chinese fishing boats on Wednesday -- the most advanced vessel in a badly outdated fleet -- was sold to the Philippine Navy by the United States last year. In January, four U.S. senators visited Manila and senior officials met in Washington for the second annual bilateral strategic dialogue. Defense exercises will begin April 16, and a summit meeting between the defense and foreign secretaries at the end of the month is expected to set the stage for a White House visit by Philippines President Benigno Aquino III later this year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped in Manila in November 2011, theatrically affirming the alliance's 60th year in a ceremony aboard an American warship in Manila Bay and -- referencing boxer and Philippine congressman Manny Pacquiao -- promising that "the United States will always be in the corner of the Philippines and we will stand and fight with you."
Indeed, for most of the 20th century, the Philippines played a more central role in American foreign policy than present perceptions suggest. A U.S. colony in the first half of the 20th century, the Philippines was America's early and prominent effort at democracy-building overseas. The 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty predates alliances with Japan and South Korea, and during the Cold War, the islands housed the United States' two largest overseas bases -- Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base. For the past decade, the country has also been an under-the-radar frontline of the global counterterrorism effort: U.S. special operations personnel have worked with Philippine forces to counter Islamic extremist groups in the Sulu archipelago.
Moreover, the world's 12th-largest country has been, and remains today, one of the most pro-American places on Earth. According to a 2010 BBC survey, 82 percent of people in the Philippines believe America plays a positive role in the world, a reservoir of goodwill that stands in sharp contrast to public opinion in South Korea (57 percent) or even Canada (44 percent).
The archipelago also sits at a critical vantage point in the Asia-Pacific: the South-China Sea, transit point for $1.2 trillion dollars in U.S. trade every year, and home to significant oil and gas reserves. The Philippines is the only U.S. ally in a complex, overlapping web of territorial disputes and claims to maritime rights that also involve China. Since March 2011, the Philippines has become increasingly concerned about what it sees as Chinese infringement on Philippine sovereignty in these waters. There are broader interests favoring cooperation -- the Philippines' need for law enforcement and naval assets to patrol its (undisputed) waters, its inability to respond to the archipelago's not-infrequent natural disasters, and its desire for international development assistance -- but it is these heightened worries about external security that have propelled the Philippine government toward closer defense ties with the United States.