US-China spy games in storm-hit Philippines? Pacific power play simmers.

As the Pentagon forges ahead with its strategic shift toward Asia, the Philippines is likely to be important for US national security efforts in the region – particularly in light of China’s recent declaration of an 'air defense zone.'

Bullit Marquez/AP/File
In this file photo, Typhoon Haiyan survivors rush to get a chance to board a US C-130 military transport plane in Tacloban city, Leyte province, central Philippines, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013.

As residents of a hard-hit Philippine town were being guided onto a cargo plane during the height of the post-typhoon aid effort, one individual refused to be ushered in.

He was wearing tattered clothes but, suspiciously, had a brand-new camera. And he was using it to snap photos not of the evacuees he was with, but of the US military aircraft on the runway.

US and allied officials concluded that he was a spy for China.

Military officers on the ground took the reported spy games in stride. “I don’t think there’s a lot they don’t know about our capabilities,” says Lt. Col. Rod Legowski, operations officer for the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. “Taking pictures isn’t going to do them that much good.”

But the episode offers a fascinating window into the high-stakes US-China chess match taking place in the region. As the Pentagon forges ahead with its strategic shift toward Asia, the Philippines is likely to be a “key link” in US national security efforts in the region, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report.

This is particularly true in light of China’s recent declaration of an “air defense zone” that has sparked tensions with Japan.

“The strategic geography it occupies is part of the gravitational pull of the US back towards the Philippines,” says Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

China has also angered the Philippine government with its claims to islands off the coast of the Philippines in the South China Sea. But here, these waters are known as the “West Philippines Sea,” printed on T-shirts popular with hipsters in Manila.

These disputes, in turn, have led China to question the intentions behind the renewed US focus on Southeast Asia, as well as a series of joint US-Philippine military exercises.

“Although the Obama Administration has publicly insisted that the renewed US security focus on Asia is not aimed specifically at China, many analysts view the policy as directly related to the rising tensions between China and neighboring countries,” notes the CRS report, which was written in mid-2012, well before Beijing’s decision to claim a sizable swath of airspace in the East China Sea.

US military officials emphasize, however, that their joint exercises with the Philippines were infinitely useful for the sort of large-scale humanitarian relief effort that occurred in the wake of typhoon Haiyan.

That said, US officials also have long been pushing for a stepped-up US military presence in the country.

More than two decades ago, Filipino lawmakers voted to close US military bases, including Subic Bay Naval Base in 1992. Protesters against the bases noted that it was a reminder of American colonial rule of the island. The joint military exercises, too, have often drawn protesters in the hundreds to the US embassy in Manila.

“We essentially gave up critical logistical and operating bases in Subic Bay and Clark [another base in the Philippines] that are right in the middle of the South China Sea,” Dr. Cronin says. “If you’re a military planner, you have to plan for contingencies – and that’s our biggest geographical weakness since we were evicted out of Subic in the early ’90s.”

In 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta engaged in high-level meetings about expanding the US military presence on the islands. When President Obama visits the region next April, officials say they are expecting the Philippines to agree to more US troops and equipment in the country on a rotating basis.

It is important that the US cement this deal soon, Cronin adds. “Time is running out with dealing with a favorable government in the Philippines. The successor may not be as disposed to security cooperation with the United States: We need to come to closure on this part of the [Asia] pivot.”

While the recent humanitarian response has been a philanthropic good, it has also been a strategic windfall, senior US military officials say.

“Doing things like this helps us greatly,” says the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade’s Legowski.

“Having agreements with access to bases and ports means we can flow in capabilities not only in the case of disaster,” he adds. “For us, it’s about we want to be able to go to countries and have access to bases and have partnerships with their militaries in case we ever have to fight a common enemy.”

The large-scale American aid effort, including the deployment of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier to the region, has ushered in a wave of goodwill toward the US military. Uniformed American troops report being stopped and thanked for their service – and even asked to pose in family photos – in Manila’s coffee shops and malls.

China’s recent declaration of an air defense zone bolsters America’s cause in the Philippines. So, too, did China’s ham-handed handling of the Philippine typhoon aid effort – first offering $200,000 (less than IKEA donated) before proffering their hospital ship, the Peace Ark.

Although the US military has said it welcomes China’s participation in humanitarian relief work in the region – and has taken part in joint military exercises with the People’s Liberation Army to practice crisis response – China’s missteps in the wake of the humanitarian crisis prompted some schadenfreude among US officials.

“Obviously they are late to the effort,” said one, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And with so many field hospitals already set up on the ground, they may also prove to be a little irrelevant, too.”

China sent the ship “absent any coordination with the Philippine government,” the official also points out.

The hope is that in the months to come, one result of American relief efforts will be a larger base of operations for the US military in the region. “Are we going to put Marines on Palawan [a Philippine island in the South China Sea]? A fighter squadron at Clark? Prepositioning supplies and equipment in Subic or elsewhere for a regional disaster? We’re going to do some of those things,” Cronin says.

The goal now is to translate some of the goodwill the US military has created through typhoon relief efforts into a continued US presence on the ground here. “All the good things we do create lasting friendships,” says Legowski. “And leaves in people’s minds, especially the children, the idea that America is here for good.”

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