Stormy weather in the South China Sea: Manila, Washington, Seoul weigh the options | World Defense

Stormy weather in the South China Sea: Manila, Washington, Seoul weigh the options


Nov 28, 2014
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Stormy weather in the South China Sea: Manila, Washington, Seoul weigh the options

By Donald Kirk,

MANILA ― War clouds hang over the South China Sea.

The question is whether they’ll burst into a storm or simply cast a menacing shadow and eventually blow away. The outlook for clear weather does not appear bright while the Philippines works on reopening Subic Bay for defense against China’s claim to most of the South China Sea.

It will be a long time before Subic returns to its glory days as the largest U.S. naval base on foreign soil, but gradual escalation seems altogether likely.

Korean T50s.

The Philippines has signaled its desire to build up something more than a ragtag, corruption-ridden military force by ordering a dozen T50 trainers from Korea Aerospace Industries. They’re called “light attack fighters,” no match for serious fighter planes, but they’ll still be able to go on patrol and perhaps support Philippine forces on the Spratly Islands, which are mostly taken over by the Chinese for air and naval facilities.

Right now, the Philippines has no fighter jets at all.

Those T50s will be flying out of the old Cubi Point Naval Air Station, built by U.S. naval engineers on Subic Bay opposite the docks that once were home to the U.S. 7th Fleet. The Americans were forced to leave both Subic Bay and Clark Air Base, northeast across the Zambales mountains, in 1991 and 1992 after the Philippine Senate, in a righteous display of nationalism, voted no to renewal of the lease on the bases.

Cubi was a marvel of military engineering, carved out of the jungle and built in the shape of an enormous aircraft carrier big enough for any type of aircraft plus facilities for repairing them. The name far predated the arrival of the Americans, but the engineers liked to say the letters were an acronym for, “Can You Build It?” The air station served U.S. Navy planes, normally flown off carriers, while Clark, the largest overseas U.S. air base, served the U.S. Air Force. These bases came in handy during both the Korean and Vietnam wars and were also the springboard for U.S. forces in the Middle East, notably the Gulf War of 1990-1991 before they were shut down and turned into shopping centers.

In fact, both Subic and Clark were such great bases that it’s tempting to predict the Americans will be back in large numbers ― a reprise of the days when they were humming with thousands of U.S. troops. Actually, however, that forecast would be premature. The Americans come and go on exercises at both bases, but they’re not yet returning on a permanent basis.

As the Chinese persist in building facilities in the Spratlys, however, the Philippines may want the U.S. to increase its investment. Nor are the Spratlys the Philippines’ only concern, the Chinese have also taken over the Scarborough shoal, 125 miles west of Subic, firing massive water hoses at Philippine boats intruding into what they see as Chinese waters.

The Philippines is looking for all the help it can get.

Last month, a Japanese reconnaissance plane joined in a modest exercise off Palawan, the long southwestern Philippine island that’s a springboard for the Spratlys. The idea was a mock air rescue mission, no big deal but the exercise was still significant. Not since the Japanese surrender nearly 70 years ago have Japanese forces operated in the Philippines.

Will the Koreans also be joining in the war games? That’s a sensitive question. It’s one thing for Korea Aerospace to be selling planes and quite another for the Korean Air Force to fly its own planes to the Philippines.

Koreans say they can ill afford to upset the Chinese by appearing to oppose them in the South China Sea while counting on China to hold North Korea in check.

Korea’s relations with China mean Korean forces won’t go to regional flashpoints all around the Chinese periphery. Certainly you don’t hear Korea taking sides in the dispute over that island cluster known as the Senkakus to the Japanese and Diaoyu to the Chinese, in the East China Sea.

Korea has such a large stake in the Philippines though it may have to get involved sooner or later in the South China Sea.

About 300,000 Koreans are in the Philippines, living, working, studying and playing ― by far the largest group of foreigners in the country. Korean companies assemble motor vehicles there. Koreans go to private schools where they learn to speak and read American English. Koreans enjoy the nightlife, the dining, the golfing.

The slogan, “It’s more fun in the Philippines” lures plane-loads of Koreans from Incheon and Busan.

You would hope that the saying, “Live and let live,” might also be a motto for conflicting forces in the South China Sea. China should consider the virtues of compromise. So far, however, the Chinese have offered no concessions even as the skies darken over stormy seas.

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