The US presence in the contested South China Sea and the recent drills with the Philippines are expected to increase tensions between China and its neighbors. DW examines.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter paid a visit Friday to the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, a hotbed of tension between China and its regional neighbors, following the annual Balikatan joint military exercises conducted by Philippine and US troops.
"With each Balikatan and each cruise by the Stennis, with each new multilateral exercise and each new defense agreement, we add a stitch to the fabric of the region's security network," Carter said.
He went on to announce that the two countries had commenced joint drills in March, and that the US would begin deploying a rotation of military equipment and troops in the Philippines.
"Countries that don't stand for those things, or don't stand with those things, are going to end up isolating themselves. But that will be self-isolation, not isolation by us," Carter continued. He emphasized that the drills were aimed at maintaining peace, not provoking war.
The US has also been conducting what it calls "freedom of navigation patrols" in the region, which Beijing has vehemently opposed.
China's defense ministry on Thursday called the strengthened alliance between the US and the Philippines "a manifestation of the Cold War mentality" that is "not conducive to peace and stability in the South China Sea."
"The Chinese army will monitor this trend closely, and will resolutely safeguard China's territorial sovereignty, as well as maritime rights and interests," it continued, in a statement posted on its website.
China has laid a "historical claim" to most of the potentially energy-rich SCS region, through which around $5 trillion (4.4 trillion euro) in trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have laid their own claims to the area.
Recent maneuvers by the US in the area have led to speculation that the military power is courting confrontation with China.
But Dr. Pascal Abb, a research fellow at the Hamburg-based German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), saw the recent move as being "specifically aimed at rekindling the US-Philippine alliance with a stronger local presence."
"It is part of the general US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific," Abb told DW, adding that the US did not want to be excluded from the possibility of cooperation with China.
"This is not a red line in the sand," Abb added. No formal pledge has been made to defend the Philippines' maritime claims. The move is rather a way to "reassure allies."
In March, the Philippine "Star" newspaper reported that China had taken control of an island in the South China Sea that the Philippines had also claimed.
"All the deployments, joint exercises, weapons sales and patrols of the last few years have occurred because local states want to hedge specifically against a rising China," Abb said.
"The recent moves are an exercise in deliberate ambiguity," Abb continued, aimed at avoiding "a defense commitment that might pitch the US against another great power over an area of very dubious value."
War of words
Beijing, of course, has its own way of seeing recent US action in the South China Sea.
Chinese General Wang Jiao Cheng recently told the country's People's Daily that the army would be highly vigilant towards any possible security threat, adding that Beijing's "foremost mission" is to safeguard its rights and interests in the South China Sea.
After a US warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Beijing's man-made islands in the contested Spratly archipelago late last year, China's naval commander allegedly warned his US counterpart that, if it didn't stop with its "provocative acts," even a minor incident could spark war.
The US remained largely undeterred, conducting a freedom of navigation patrol near the contested Triton Islands in the Paracels in January. Chinese authorities were duly upset, saying that the vessel "violated the relevant Chinese law and entered China's territorial sea without authorization.”
Carter responded by saying that "the excessive claims regarding Triton Island are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention."
Abb allowed for the possibilty that China, to counter recent moves by the US, might also boost its military presence in the Spratlys. He cautioned, however, that this turn in the contested area could all amount to "a much bigger step" than what has occurred to date.
"Beijing has previously pledged not to militarize this area," he said, adding that an increase in militarization from China could provide further justification for an expanded US presence. China, on the other hand, sees the US as the instigators.