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The Great Dare: USA, Military Budget Cut, China, and the South China Sea Dispute

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The United States of America (USA) is cutting its military budget to pre-World War II levels. Due to the Afghanistan war, the United State’s longest ground war, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel proposes that it is necessary to refit the armed forces. He aims to reduce the army to pre-World War II levels – about 450,000 strong, from post 9/11 570,000. Additionally, he wants to decommission the nuclear super aircraft carrier USS George Washington. But the cut doesn’t stop there, the air-force’s entire A-10 “Warthog” attack aircraft fleet, that benefits ground forces in combat, is also scheduled for the chopping board.

Without a doubt, the US is the Philippine’s strongest ally in the South China Sea. It has repeatedly and consistently vowed to defend and protect its allies in the South China Sea, but how can it defend when it is severely handicapped? As opposed to the US, China is exorbitantly funding its armed forces to modernize. It now has aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, high tech helicopters, fighter jets, and new ballistic missiles that carry nuclear warheads. With the impending budget cut, how can the US and its allies in the South China Sea cope with the imbalance? The only obvious recourse is to rely on Japan and South Korea. But due to the stigma of Japan’s participation in World War II, a direct alliance between the two countries, and even other Asian countries, is questionable. Japanese atrocities such as rape, comfort women, bayonetted babies, massacres, and forced labor camps still haunt Asia. This is further exacerbated by Japanese PM Abe Shinzo’s visit to the Yasuniki Shrine that honors the war dead, including war criminals. Besides, Japan must first amend its anti-war constitution before engaging China head-on. Are these factors making China more aggressive now more than ever?

On a more speculative note, does China know about the US’s impending military handicap? Recently, China has been more verbose on its criticisms of US ties with other countries. For one, it has audaciously bashed the US over the Tibetan Llama’s visit to the Whitehouse over solidarity. It strongly urges the US to “rectify” its mistakes. Another, when the US called China’s rule on disputed seas “provocative,” China called on the States to stop meddling in Asian affairs. Likewise, China has repeatedly voiced out its concerns over the US overt display of support for the Philippines and Japan. As a super power nation, if truly a super power, this is unthinkable. Logic dictates that an ant can never dictate terms with a boot – no weak state can and should irritate a stronger one. Unless the power has shifted, the weaker state should maintain amiability – or at least feign it.

China prods Japan and the Philippines into a military confrontation. In the disputed Diaoyu/Sinkaku island chain,  Japanese Coast Guard patrol ships are frequently rammed by Chinese fishing trawls. Increased naval presence in the disputed East China Sea agitates the already jittery Japanese. In the Scarborough, Ayungin, and other Philippine shoals, the Chinese Navy shoots Filipino fishermen with water canons. Even the Philippine Marines stationed in the BSP Sierra Madre are not spared. Is China indirectly daring Washington to send in the cavalry?

Finally, isn’t China’s statements on its official website on Nuclear capabilities and intended targets a direct threat to the US? Threats like this, especially from an increasingly aggressive country, should be taken very seriously. But the question really here is, even after the 9/11 incident, why is the US letting China’s saber rattling go unchecked? The US is known to start wars on much much less provocation. It must be remembered that George Bush’s war on terror was started over a speculation. Why is it ignoring a threat as overt as this? Is it because of adverse public sentiment in meddling in another foreign war? Or is it because of its impending military budget cut?

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