US Playing a Dangerous Asia-Pacific Game?

On Dec. 14, Philippine President Benigno Aquino formally commissioned his country’s latest and most capable warship, a 46-year old former US Coast Guard cutter. Renamed the Gregorio del Pilar after a young revolutionary general killed fighting American troops in 1899, the navy’s new flagship is being readied for its first operational patrol in what Manila now chooses to call the ‘West Philippine Sea.’

The Gregorio del Pilar, along with many other small warships, form what military strategists like to call ‘the tip of the spear’ in the contested waters of the South China Sea. The significance of this ageing vessel’s deployment, however, is not its manifest inability to defend itself – let alone the Philippines – from almost any other warship afloat in the region but that such an attack could invoke the country’s 60-year old mutual defence treaty with the US.

On 16 November 2011 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood on the deck of a far more capable vessel, the destroyer USS Fitzgerald. Named after a naval officer killed in Vietnam while serving with local forces, the selection of the ship as a platform for Secretary Clinton’s reaffirmation of the continuing relevance of the treaty may have reflected some military theatre to signal US willingness to support it allies in the region.

In Clinton’s words: “The United States is working with our Filipino allies to ensure that we can meet threats like proliferation and terrorism, and to support the Philippines particularly in the maritime domain as you move to improve your territorial defense and interdiction capabilities.”

However, behind such routine diplomatic boilerplate stands Article V of the defense treaty, which states that “an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

The role of the Gregorio del Pilar may be seen as simply to remain at sea long enough to get in the way of a potential enemy - invariably seen as China - and introduce a layer of uncertainty over the consequences of any direct action against the Philippines or its state assets.

This function evokes the cold calculation of General Ferdinand Foch to a question of what the smallest useful British Army force should be sent to France in the event of German attack. He replied: “A single British soldier - and we will see to it that he is killed.”

By providing the Philippines with even the most limited means to confront an opponent at sea, backed by Clinton’s explicit signaling her government’s resolve to stand by its treaty obligation, Washington may have handed over the potential detonator for an armed confrontation with China to the crew of an elderly ship that had once borne the name of the first US Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s caution that “when the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation” may have missed by the symbolists at the State Department.

From flesh to steel

Barely a day after the Gregorio del Pilar joined the Philippine’s fleet, the US staged a ceremony in Baghdad to mark the formal end of its direct combat role in Iraq. Within two years a similar ceremony is likely to be held in Kabul, marking an end to the confused and militarily unsatisfactory US-led conflicts in West Asia. However, the US military and the careers and industries it supports is nothing if not kinetic, with its restless professional and commercial entities constantly searching for advantage, resources and gain.

The West Asian conflicts were by and large a disappointment to the professional military hierarchy and the defence sector. Combat operations were largely conducted at sub-unit level – what the British in Northern Ireland called ‘a corporal’s war’ – with senior officers largely confined to managerial rather than command roles.

The winners were those junior officers and NCOs who gained career-enhancing experience, special forces units and logistics specialists. Among the losers were defense contractors who require a steady stream of weapon programs to keep their lines open and their stock prices high. The low-end equipment demanded by the army and the Marines and endless supplies of ammunition and ordnance did not meet this criteria.

Further, the Iraq and Afghan campaigns closely followed the traditional model of colonial soldiering, despite the best efforts of think tanks and military bureaucrats to spin an endless series of ambushes and IEDs into ‘asymmetric warfare’ best countered by a ‘revolution in military affairs.’ For the combat troops the fighting was nasty, brutish and long and utterly devoid of theory.

With the flag barely folded in Baghdad and with the final convoys carrying the last US units to leave Iraq crossing into Kuwait, the debate over how to shape the military into the coming decades has moved beyond the technical and into the mainstream.

The ‘new’ doctrine focuses on the so-called Air-Sea Battle Concept (ASBC). In essence the ASBC is a reworking of traditional US preferences for an engineering solution to the geopolitical challenges facing its self-declared hegemony in those regions it views as within its spheres of interest and responsibility.

To ASBC’s proponents this means the Asia-Pacific, with an emphasis on the use of naval and air power to project US influence, support allies and raise the military and economic costs of any power that seeks to counter this doctrine. To its detractors the ASBC offers an opportunity to restock and upgrade the Navy and Air Force at the expense of the Army, giving the US dominance offshore and overhead but less able to influence events on the ground.

Politically, a reduction in the US military’s expeditionary capabilities will also appeal to those in Washington who believe reducing the ground forces’ means to intervene in bloody, costly, almost certainly inconclusive and ultimately unpopular conflicts will therefore limit their likelihood.

Costs and risks

However, the price of moving away from a defense policy based on the ability to fight anywhere to one perceived to be focused on a specific geographical region is the potential for conflict in that area increases as nations who consider themselves as the target – China in the case of ASBC -- seek to counter the altered relationship.

In Beijing, Washington’s renewed interest in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia will almost certainly be used to justify further defense expenditure and stepped-up diplomatic efforts to erode US influence where possible. This may well suit those US policymakers keen to reprise the cold war strategy of forcing the Soviet Union to divert scarce resources into non-productive armaments rather than consumer goods in order to undermine the state’s popularity and legitimacy.

Such a strategy, if even considered, would produce very different results in modern China as it would empower resource-hungry military and state interests and no doubt feed nationalist sentiments rather than raise widespread opposition to such spending priorities.

Any reversion to a naval and air force-centric ‘Pacific First’ strategy will not necessarily lead the US and China to square off at myriad points across the region. However, what is probable is that the potential for confrontation will increase if ASBC moves from theory into practice and results in a build-up of US naval and air forces – and perhaps more crucially those of its allies equipped with modern arms and supported by treaty obligations - on the periphery of what China considers its historical boundaries.

Unless the management of even the most seemingly trivial incidents involving any of these forces is built into the new doctrine, an otherwise glancing encounter over a remote atoll or reef might well serve as the detonator for events that could swiftly move beyond the control of local commanders and trigger a crisis neither side can easily contain.

(Gavin Greenwood is an analyst with the Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates security risk management consultancy.)