The Scarborough Shoal

Skyline of Metro Manila. Image from Wikipedia.

Over the past few months, China and the Philippines have been in a tense maritime quarrel over a controversial piece of land known as the Scarborough Shoal. The shoal is located just 124 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines’ largest island, Luzon. Despite the shoal lying within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, China asserts claims that the shoal has been mapped as Chinese territory for centuries. The results of this stand-off could have significant implications for the United States.

With assertions like this one, China has made a recent habit of making broad and controversial claims. The United States has a perfect opportunity to respond to these claims by backing the Philippines in this dispute. The U.S. can send a message to China that the U.S. too has a presence in the Pacific. That presence could not be felt at a better time: China continues to try and remain exclusive when dealing with internal controversies and the Philippines continues to flourish and become a major player in Asia.

The Filipino economy has been on the radar recently because of its rapid growth. It seems that a once corrupt and debilitating government has finally turned into a functioning unit that can support growth in the country. The Philippines could become a major trade and investment ally for the United States in the near future. Considering this point, the U.S. needs to act quickly. This is a time of need for the Filipino government. With U.S. support, China would receive the message that it cannot throw its weight around in Southeast Asia. This would create enormous security for the Philippines and would cultivate an incredibly fruitful relationship for both countries.

While there have yet to be any explicit requests from Philippine President Benigno Aquino, the need is clear and simple. The Philippines needs more sophisticated technology in order to more aptly patrol its borders. This would not mean any significant expense for the United States. In fact, the United States would want to be cautious of giving too much support to the Philippines. After all, it was only a few short decades ago that the United States had a significant, less-than-ideal presence in several bases throughout the Philippines. The U.S. would be wise to avoid any implication that it was simply using the Philippines to get to China. Rather, the Philippines needs to be treated as a legitimate power that could use some assistance in this particular case. The fundamental difference between consenting ally and helpless neighbor will be very apparent when the U.S. does finally act.

Some critics would argue that U.S. involvement would result in U.S.-China relations going from bad to worse at an incredibly sensitive time for the Asian power. But these claims have no foundation. U.S. involvement would benefit the U.S. and the Philippines as has already been discussed, and the effect on China would be almost neutral. Chinese leadership has too many other, more relevant issues to handle than to make a big splash about the Scarborough Shoal. Besides, any damage to U.S.-China relations over the issue was already done when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to an area of the South China Sea as the Philippine West Sea. The United States has a lot to gain and almost nothing to lose from helping the Philippines in the Scarborough stand-off.

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