The United States has occasional conflicting interests in the Pacific region, and one of them right now is where to stand in the scrap between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal.
The shoal is an area of reefs and rocks in the South China Sea, named after a 1784 shipwreck, to which both China and the Philippines lay claim. The bits of rock sticking up above the surface of the sea are uninhabited and uninhabitable, although sporadic efforts have been made to put shacks on them. The countries' real interest lies in the fish and possible undersea oil and gas that may be in the region.
The Philippines has been an ally of the United States in the Pacific. This is a point that Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III made during a visit with President Barack Obama last week at the White House. He is seeking U.S. support in his country's competition with China for possession of the Scarborough Shoal, which the Filipinos call Panatag and the Chinese call Huangyan.
Mr. Aquino's pitch was also aimed at the American president's recent affirmation that the United States is now making a "pivot" to Asia, away from Europe, the Middle East and South Asia -- a message also delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta in a recent trip he made to the region.
The United States, however, does not need a new conflict with China that would require military and financial resources, particularly with the Afghanistan War not yet over and the U.S. domestic scene in need of attention. The Chinese have signaled their point of view, that a maritime dispute in the South China Sea is, in the words of Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army, "not America's business."
It might be tempting for Mr. Obama, in the midst of a campaign, or the Pentagon, looking to protect its budget in the face of cuts, to respond to Gen. Ma's challenge, but it is much more sensible to look the other way. For the United States to confront the Chinese over some rocks sticking out of the South China Sea, even at the behest of the Philippines, makes no sense.
First Published June 14, 2012 12:00 AM