It was a classic case in of calling in big brother after a run in with the local bully. Although scheduled way in advance, the annual war games involving the US military and armed forces from the Philippines, couldn't have come at a more appropriate time - from Manila's perspective.
The Philippines were in a standoff with China over fishing rights in an area that Manila claims falls within its exclusive economic zone. China claims that the entire South China Sea is Chinese territorial waters.
When Chinese fishing boats began their activity, the Philippines dispatched the country's largest warship, but China interposed its own warships between the Philippine ship and the fishing boats. Each side accused the other of violating its sovereignty, although the area involved is hundreds of kilometers distant from Chinese territory.
The crisis simmered down when the Chinese fishing boats left the area with their catch and the Philippines replaced the warship with a Coast Guard vessel.
The Philippines engaged in a bit of double talk: On the one hand, it obliquely tied the military exercise to the territorial dispute with China. Jesse Dellosa, the Chief of Staff, quoted by AP, said “Given the international situation we are in, I say that this exercise, in connection with all those that we have had in the past, is a timely and mutually beneficial event for us and our U.S. counterparts.”
At the same time, Philippine Army spokesman Major Emmanuel Garcia, claimed that the joint exercises, proceeding in an area abutting the South China Sea, should not worry anybody “No country in the Pacific or anywhere in the world should be concerned about the exercise because this exercise is not directed toward any nation," said Garcia. "This exercise is purely for the [uplifting] of the skills of both the Philippine and U.S. soldiers in responding to disasters whether manmade or natural.”
Philippine president Benigno Aquino backed up the line and claimed there was no connection between the territorial disputes and the war games and the Philippines would follow Churchill's advice in preferring jaw jaw over war war.
This diplomatic tiptoeing reflects a murky situation.
On the one hand, the Filipinos are realistic enough to realize that the United States will not engage China in hostilities over access to fisheries.
On the other hand, the reinforced US posture in the Asia-Pacific region is based in no small measure on the United States willingness to provide a counterweight to China.
In the Sino-US rivalry, military agreements and port facilities with countries in the region help the US project its power against China. If this means that the US is occasionally thrust into the role of big brother, then so be it.