South China Sea: Philippines row pushes Trump into backing down from region

The US and the Philippines have come to blows in recent weeks as the Asian nation looks to secure more independence from the US. President Rodrigo Duterte threatened last month to rip up an agreement between Manila and Washington, which would stop US troops from training in the country. The row was sparked after Mr Duterte’s political ally had his visa in the US cancelled. The White House expressed concern over Manila’s methods for combating drug-related crime in the Philippines.

The Filipino leader lashed out in an animated fashion, calling on President Trump to reverse the decision if he wanted a security accord to remain intact.

Mr Duterte said in January: “I’m warning you … if you won’t do the correction on this, I will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement. I’ll end that son of a b***h.”

Terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement would affect more than 300 joint training and other activities this year with US forces.

It would also represent a key boost to China, as the country’s forces continue to target contested island chains in the vicinity of US military bases.

The latest clash between Manila and Washington could be the final push that provokes Mr Trump to withdraw from the South China Sea.

The White House Chief has expressed frustration over his country’s huge spending on military operations around the world.

In fact, he warned in 2018 that the US public no longer want to be “the policemen of the world”.

He added: “We’re spending tremendous amounts of money for decades policing the world, and that shouldn’t be the priority.

“We want to police ourselves and we want to rebuild our country.”

Another key reason Washington may want to avoid further hostility with China in the region is its treaty with the Philippines.

The Treaty of Manila, signed in 1946, was signed to release the Philippines from US sovereignty, and also includes a defence alliance between the two nations.

If China were to launch a significant military threat to the Philippines, the US could have no choice but to step in, risking a skirmish between two of the world’s biggest superpowers.

Worse for the US, this outcome is only more likely now that Beijing’s forces have become emboldened in the region.

US Navy commander, James Kraska, of the Council of Foreign Relations, said in January: “The US has lost advantage throughout the spectrum of operations, from low-level interaction against China’s maritime militia to higher-end conflict scenarios.”

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Beijing’s growing presence poses a huge threat to Washington, whose presence has so far failed to halt intense Chinese militarisation in the South China Sea.

In 2016, the US reached an agreement with the Philippines to build five military installations located throughout the country.

But President Xi Jinping has overseen huge developments in the contested Spratly Island chain.

Described by many as “island fortresses”, China has taken control of the archipelago with man made island bases.

The moving of its aircraft carriers, airstrips and weapons into the region has earned the cluster of bases the nickname: “The Great Wall of Sand.”

Leaked photos show cargo ships and supply vessels on the islands, while others boast runways, hangars, control towers and helipads.

With the situation escalating, it looks as though the US could soon abandon its attempts to thwart China.

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