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It's time for U.S. troops to visit Thitu Island

The U.S. has long kept its distance from the occupied South China Sea features, holding to the notion that keeping the status quo was crucial to avoiding conflict. Unfortunately, Beijing interpreted this reticence as weakness and gutted that status quo, while America's treaty ally, the Philippines, bore the brunt of China's gray-zone expansionism. The journey toward reclaiming the initiative can start with a single, modest step--sending U.S. & Philippine military doctors and engineers to Thitu Island.
Ray Powell | AUGUST 28, 2023
It's time for U.S. troops to visit Thitu Island

Ray Powell

Director

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It is long past time ...

In order to (a.) bring aid and comfort to a remote population and (b.) demonstrate their commitment to West Philippine Sea security, Philippine and U.S. military forces should, at the earliest opportunity, jointly conduct a civic action mission to Thitu Island, which Filipinos call Pag-Asa

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One of 2 classrooms on Pag-Asa island. Jervis Manahan, ABS-CBN News

Civic action is defined as:

The use of preponderantly indigenous military forces on projects useful to the local population at all levels in such fields as education, training, public works, agriculture, transportation, communications, health sanitation, and others contributing to economic and social development, which would also serve to improve the standing of the military forces with the population. 

The U.S. government--concerned about roiling the hotly contested South China Sea (SCS) waters by appearing to favor any one national claim over another--has long taken a very conservative approach to putting "boots on the ground" of any SCS feature (e.g., island, rock, reef, shoal, etc.).

America sought to promote norms by which all claimants maintained the tenuous status quo--no new construction, militarization, new occupations or armed conflict. It thus seemed to make sense for the U.S. to maintain a certain detachment from the messy politics of who claims what across the Spratlys, and to treat any upsetting of the equilibrium with equal, stern disapproval.

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But that ship has long since sailed. Things are much different now. 

In particular, the Philippines faces an increasingly aggressive and hostile military and paramilitary threat from the People's Republic of China, which has upended that bygone status quo. In seeking to assert its sovereignty and jurisdiction over its extravagant and discredited nine-dashed line claim (see red line above), the PRC has systematically:

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Mischief Reef -- by Ezra Acayan, Getty Images

America's assiduously ambiguous posture toward SCS claims may have made a lot of sense in 1990, but an increasingly expansionist PRC regime has repeatedly and audaciously exploited this weakness in the U.S. stance to its own gain. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been far too slow to adapt its SCS policy to the new reality.

Gray zone deterrence has failed in the SCS, and it's long past time for much more imaginative counter gray-zone policies to evolve

In fact, the Philippines has already led the way with its impressive maritime transparency policy rallying domestic resilience and international support, so this is the perfect opportunity to exploit the breach.

A civic action mission will hardly seem like an audacious step, but ending its no-boots-on-the-ground policy can be a very important signal that America won't shy away from its repeated commitments to honor its treaty obligations--including in the South China Sea.

Of course, I have no doubt that even this modest step will meet with shrill accusations from Beijing that the U.S. is provoking China by challenging its "indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands". More delicately, it may also generate protests from Vietnam and Taiwan, both of which have their own extensively overlapping claims. 

The latter may be handled with quiet and proactive diplomacy, as both these governments--while probably obligated to formally object--will recognize that their own core interests are not really threatened by closer U.S.-Philippine integration. In fact, they will more likely (secretly) appreciate moves that complicate their chief rival's strategic SCS calculus.

The expected PRC outrage, on the other hand, should be greeted with heart-warming pictures of the U.S. and Philippine military medical outreach and civil engineering projects ... as well as more solemn reminders of America's treaty commitment to Philippine security.

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U.S. Special Operations Pacific Medical Civic Action Program, Zamboanga, Philippines (2009), photo by Jerry Lobb

Ray Powell

Ray is the Director of SeaLight and Project Lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He's a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and was a 2021 Fellow at Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institute.

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