In the wake of a meeting between President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen and the Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy in Washington in early April 2023, China had started staging military exercises around the Taiwanese waters in a bid to threaten the island nation. A massive firepower demonstration by the U.S. Army jointly at Fort Magsaysay in the Philippines along with Filipino forces on April 13 has, however, unnerved China.
According to reports from Fort Magsaysay, U.S. and Filipino forces, in a show of American firepower, blasted vehicles with anti-tank missiles in combat-readiness drills that were said to have alarmed China.
In a gunnery range at Fort Magsaysay, which is a training camp for the special forces of the Philippines, American and Filipino troops fired Javelin guided missiles towards three target vehicles, simulating a battle zone. The missiles streaked at a low altitude for more than half a kilometre towards their targets and exploded in a fireball that shook the ground.
“This is what it looks like when the militaries of the USA and the Philippines come together,”U.S. Army Pacific Commander General Charles Flynn was quoted as saying.
The exercise termed Balikanta Tagalog between troops of the USA and the Philippines has been continuing for decades. More than 17,600 troops took part in the live-fire manoeuvres that included a ship-sinking rocket attack and beach assaults to simulate retaking an island near the South China Sea over which Beijing is trying to extend its hegemony.
U.S. troops also displayed weapons like sniper rifles with night-vision devices that could hit targets more than a kilometre away with high precision and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems that are rocket and missile launchers that have been used by Ukraine against Russia.
“What you are witnessing here today is really putting into operation everything that our political leaders are talking about from integrated deterrence to campaigning to building an enduring advantage,” General Flynn told a group of visiting journalists in an ominous message to China.
Following a three-day Chinese sea and air drills in the second week of April simulating an encirclement of China, Beijing on April 12 tried to threaten Taipei by saying the exercise was a “serious warning” to pro-independence politicians in the self-governing island and their “foreign supporters.”After watching the demonstration of American firepower, however, Beijing pleaded that a deepening security alliance between Washington and Manila and the ongoing military drills in the Philippines should not harm the security and territorial interests of China; and should not interfere with the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.”The military cooperation between the USA and the Philippines should not target any third party and should be conducive to regional peace and stability.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said such military cooperation “should not target any third party and should be conducive to regional peace and stability.”
The Chinese complaints about the joint U.S. – Filipino military exercise posing a threat to regional peace and stability is laughable, however, as China is the biggest threat to peace and stability in the Indo – Pacific in general and the South China Sea in particular. China wants to gain control of the entire South China Sea by trampling the sovereign rights of all other littoral states in the region through military force. The Chinese army and navy have already occupied some of the islands in South China Sea belonging to other countries and are trying to exploit the economic and mineral resources of the sea. China is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea, violating sovereign rights of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan. The islands and reefs the Chinese army has occupied are rich in mineral, oil and other natural resources and are also vital for global trade.
The USA is merely trying to ensure the rights of passage through the South China Sea of all countries, in terms of the international laws enjoying the ratification of the United Nations.
To the alarm of China, the USA has been taking steps to rebuild its military might in the Philippines more than 30 years after the closure of its large bases in the country and reinforcing an art of military alliances in Asia when the new regional threat is an increasingly belligerent China. On February 2, 2023, long-time allies the USA and the Philippines announced that rotating batches of American forces would be granted access to four more military camps in the Philippines besides five other local bases where constructions like barracks and warehouses had already started with American funds. The locations of the four new bases have not, however, been revealed so far.
Subic Bay in the Philippines was used as an American military base in the 1960s and ‘70s to sustain the U.S. war efforts in Vietnam, but subsequently in 1992 the Filipino Senate declined to extend the lease. The seizure by China of the Mischief Reef, a coral reef within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines that extends into the South China Sea, provided the first hint that the old allies might have been too quick in downgrading their relationship.
Beijing is realizing painstakingly that it will be difficult for it to compete with the deep pockets of Washington in the race for building military might and is turning increasingly desperate. On March 9, 2023, President of the United States Joe Biden proposed more than $25 billion spending, mostly in the Indo-Pacific sector, in critical infrastructure and defence to out-compete China in the region. This includes over $15 billion of proposed investment in the infrastructure sector and $9 billion for shoring up American defence in the region.
“This Budget cements our commitment to confronting global challenges and keeping America safe. It outlines crucial investments to out-compete China globally,” Joe Biden said in a message to the U.S. Congress. This would also restore the global leadership of America, reviving key alliances and partnerships, strengthening the military,
fostering democracy and human rights, protecting global health and advancing cyber- security.
“During these unprecedented and extraordinary times, the Budget requests resources to out-compete China and advance American prosperity globally,” the White House said in a statement. More than $2.3 billion has been included in discretionary funding to secure an open and connected Indo-Pacific and implement the Indo-Pacific Strategy to strengthen and modernize the alliances of America in this vital region. Funds have been earmarked for ASEAN and for advancing the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. The Budget caters for enhanced U.S. diplomatic presence throughout the region, particularly the Pacific Islands. A provision of $7.1 billion has been made over the next 20 years for the Compacts of Free Association with the Freely Associated States of Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.
Close on the heels of the increase in the Defence Budget, U.S. President Joe Biden travelled to San Diego in California on March 13 to announce in the presence of Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister of the UK. Rishi Sunak that Australia would purchase nuclear-powered attack submarines manufactured by the USA. The three countries Australia, the U.K. and the USA have now formed the military alliance AUKUS to forestall China making inroads in the Pacific Islands.
Under AUKUS, Australia will purchase up to five Virginia-class nuclear powered fast attack submarines armed with cruise missiles. These will act as a counterweight to the military build-up of China in the region. Besides, a future generation of submarines would be built in the U.K. and in Australia with U.S. technology and support.
Commenting on the deal, Rishi Sunk noted: “Today we stand together united for a higher purpose, the maintenance of freedom, peace and security.” He emphasized on the “growing assertiveness” of China as a major new challenge that threatens to create a world “defined by danger, disorder and division.” To fulfil this purpose, “we must forge new kinds of relationships to meet new kinds of challenges.”
Joe Biden said: “Forging this new partnership, we are showing again how democracies can deliver our own security and prosperity; not just for us but for the entire world. This is the first time in 65 years and only the second time in history that the United States has shared its nuclear propulsion technology.”
A panicked Beijing seems to have forgotten the difference between a nuclear powered submarine and a nuclear armed submarine. Taking note of the summit between the AUKUS partners, on March 14 Beijing said the pact violated the Non Proliferation Treaty and the three AUKUS partners were travelling “further down the dangerous and wrong path.” Australian officials had to remind Beijing that they were working to acquire nuclear-powered, and not nuclear-armed, submarines.