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When giants collide

The threat of an actual armed conflict igniting betweeen the United States and China over passage in the South China Sea remains low but it has been elevated a few notches as a result of the Chinese buildup of structures believed to be military in nature in some of the formations in the contested seas.
The recent developments merely confirmed the tack followed by President Duterte on China, which is to engage the Asian giant which is a huge departure from the previous policy of confrontation, is correct.
Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana admitted in a forum the risk of “miscalculation” and armed conflict in the South China Sea has risen as China starts to challenge US dominance in the disputed waters.
Lately, China has been suspected to have expanded its communications links and other facilities on artificial islands in the area, despite Beijing’s denial saying that it is building only civilian facilities.
Sta. Romana said the balance of power in the region is shifting as the two global powers compete for control of the waters.
From the start, Rody has taken an independent foreign policy to disentangle the country from being labeled as a hopeless American lackey in the region.
The position taken by the administration is that the maritime friction is more between the United States and China rather than between China and the Philippines.
His administration also took a diplomatic approach on the territorial conflict. China and the Philippines, for instance, have an ongoing Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM) in which both countries periodically consult which was not even imaginable two years ago amid a tense maritime standoff between both countries.
While relations improve between the Philippines and China, the US seems to have raised its presence in the South China Sea while also wooing Rody whom it wants to consider still a solid ally.
Sta. Romana said that which is under dispute is the dominance in the Asian waters which Sta. Romana predicted “a shift in the balance of power.”
He compared the two powers to bull elephants engaged in a heated battle for dominance that the Philippines should keep off unless it wants to be trampled on.
The Carl Vinson, with a fleet of about 40 fighter jets and roughly 5,000 American sailors, arrived in Manila this week in a display of American presence in the disputed region. A US aircraft carrier is also expected to dock in Vietnam in March, the first time in more than four decades.
But the presence of the warship would not change China’s established advantage in the region.
“The aircraft carriers’ visits are only symbolic – to show that America still has a military presence in the region and that it is still a hegemon,” Xu Liping, a researcher on Asian-Pacific studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.
“With the military construction program on the three major islands in the South China Sea, China has built an effective network of intelligence gathering and defense abilities,” he said.
Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, had told a congressional hearing that China had unilaterally built seven new military bases in the South China Sea, with new facilities including “aircraft hangers, barracks facilities, radar facilities, weapon emplacements and 10,000-foot runways”.
Sta. Romana said China gave the Philippines an assurance that the military assets it is deploying on disputed islands in the South China Sea are not aimed at the Philippines and other neighboring countries.
“It is part of the rivalry between a rising China and the US over the South China Sea,” Sta. Romana said.
Sta Romana underlined the independent foreign policy of Rody: “We want to remain friends with both, and to gain the maximum benefit.”
The Philippines, with its strategic location in the Asian region and its strongly Western-influenced culture, can only hope in vain of assuming a neutral role in the conflict.
The independent foreign policy of Rody, however, offers the country a wider latitude in maneuvering away from sustaining a major impact from the struggle among the superpowers.

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