The world is entering the year 2022 with uncertainty and danger.
As the United States’ power wanes, its rival powers have stepped up aggressive actions to challenge its dominant role after Donald Trump took a more isolationist stance. It will take some time for President Joe Biden to rebuild Washington’s role after its decision to step back from the costly war in Afghanistan.
In Eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin flexed Russia’s muscles by massing its force along Ukraine’s border, threatening war and reclaiming the old glory of the dismantled Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The bi-polar world ended in the 1990s when the USSR and most of its Eastern European satellites collapsed starting with the unification of the two German states in 1989.
At about that period, China started to assert its own power by violently putting down the democratic movement in Tiananmen Square, and made its presence felt by seizing a half-submerged reef in the South China Sea.
Beijing was emboldened to build structures and upgrade it over time after the Americans withdrew from its two large overseas military bases in Clark and Subic, confident it had won over the USSR in the Cold War and that China was lightyears away from challenging its supremacy in the region.
A generation later, Russia, which is the old USSR, now led by a former KGB, has bounced back with ambitions of domination in Europe, annexing Crimea and now threatening Ukraine. It has won the support of Belarus, which is giving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) some headache by unleashing migrants along its borders with Poland and with the Baltic states.
It has more advanced development and deployment of hypersonic missiles while the United States has been trying to catch up, a reason why Trump walked away from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty.
While both Russia and some of the former republics, on one hand, and the US, on the other, were tied to the treaty, China has been testing, developing and deploying conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles.
The United Kingdom, France, Germany and other NATO states are also getting worried over Russia’s next move in the Ukraine, even as China has intensified its psychological operations in the Indo-Pacific region.
China has traded artillery fire with Indian forces on its Himalayan borders and made its strong presence felt in the disputed waters in the South China Sea. In 2021, it sent waves and waves of fighters, bombers and other aircraft to test the readiness of Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province. Beijing has warned of a full invasion if Taipei declares independence.
The scenarios in Ukraine and Taiwan are sending jitters to Russia’s European neighbors and to smaller and weaker states around China.
The United States is playing a dangerous shadow game with its rivals in the two sides of the world and may face a hot war similar to what happened 80 years ago. But in the 20th century, Washington faced two different protagonists — Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan — which are now its allies.
Before 2021 closed, Biden signed into law what could be America’s biggest defense budget, nearly $770 billion, which is many times more than what Russia and China are spending for its defense.
In 2021, China spent only $209 billion or 1.3 percent of its GDP. On the other hand, Russia’s defense budget was only $61 billion or 4.3 percent of its 2019 GDP. The US 2022 defense budget was roughly 3.4 percent of its 2019 GDP.
According to The Dupuy Institute, a Virginia-based non-government organization that looks into military history, conflicts and conflict resolution, the United States will increase spending by 5 percent to acquire new warships, aircraft and ground-based equipment to face both China and Russia.
Some of the equipment would replace what was lost after the Taliban captured Afghanistan in August, only days since the US’ hasty retreat after 20 years of the war on terror.
Washington was giving Ukraine some $300 million in military aid to counter Russian forces massing at its borders. It was also spending $4 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative to help its NATO allies deal with Russia.
On this side of the world, a much bigger $7.1 billion will go to the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, allowing Washington to work with allies and partners to counter China’s rise.
In July, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin unveiled an integrated deterrence strategy in Singapore, urging Australia, India, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to work closely in pushing back China’s creeping influence in the region.
However, it is doubtful if all Asean states are on board since some of them are orbiting around China, like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Brunei and Thailand have muted reactions to US plans while only Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam are likely to join.
Malaysia and the Philippines are tentative after the US announced a strategic partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom to build eight nuclear-powered attack submarines for Canberra in September.
Although it will take 10 years for the first nuclear-powered submarine to be launched, some Asean states have warned of an arms race in the region which could move the region closer to a conflict.
Months after the “AUKUS” deal was announced, there were proposals in South Korea to build nuclear-powered submarines to counter the North’s buildup. There are no decisions yet but it could force Japan to acquire its own nuclear-powered submarine, reviving years of distrust and resentment in Northeast Asia.
Japan invaded Korea in World War II, conscripting its men and turning its women into sex slaves or “comfort women.” There were also comfort women in the areas that Japan occupied, including the Philippines.
Washington has also planned to expand and increase the frequencies of its bilateral and multilateral training and exercises, like the “Cobra Gold” in Thailand and “Balikatan” in the Philippines.
The US and the Philippines have agreed to expand Balikatan in 2022 by inviting Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. Other allies and partners may send observers to the two-week activities, which include field training exercises and live-fire exercises.
The pandemic scaled down the list of activities this year. Last year’s iteration was canceled, with President Rodrigo Duterte writing to the US embassy and informing the Americans of his intention to scrap the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, a legal framework allowing US troops to exercise and train in the country.
But Duterte took the letter back and restored the VFA this year after Austin’s visit to Manila, where the latter promised to defend the country against China in case of an armed attack on a public vessel in the South China Sea.
A decrepit former US transport ship, BRP Sierra Madre, which ran aground more than two decades ago on the shallow waters of Ayungin Shoal, has been a thorn in the side of China, preventing it from expanding eastward to Half Moon Shoal, closer to the Palawan mainland.
Washington has also planned to acquire new F35 fighters, Aegis guided-missile destroyers, early warning systems, and ballistic and anti-ballistic missiles to defend Guam and Hawaii and its forward bases in Japan and South Korea.
The US also wants to disperse and preposition its forces, supplies and equipment around the Indo-Pacific region to prevent China from easily targeting US forces, setting up depots and holding drills to move around its Marines and other forces.
The Philippines has been conducting several exercises with US troops, like the “Kamandag,” “Salaknib,” and “BASE-P,” and small unit drills like “Talon” and “Talon Vision.”
Kamandag involves Marine-led drills, while Salaknib is an army-to-army exercise, which is part of the bigger US Army “Pacific Pathways” drills.
The Bilateral Air Contingent Exercise-Philippines is an air force-to-air force activity. In 2019, a squadron of F16s from South Korea flew to Basa Air Base to exercise with the Philippines FA-50 light fighters.
The Philippines has increasingly become important to the United States as tensions in the region continue to rise. China has become increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea and Taiwan. It has also squeezed democratic movements in Hong Kong and clamped down on Xinjiang and Tibet.
When the defense and foreign secretaries of the two allies meet face-to-face in spring, they will discuss the expansion of the strategic cooperation between Manila and Washington. The US is looking for additional locations under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and closer intelligence- and information-sharing agreement to allow Manila to access “real-time” maritime domain awareness data and information in the South China Sea.
In the last five years, the Americans had to dance with Duterte after he pursued a rapprochement policy with Beijing. Only his security and foreign policy teams, led by Delfin Lorenzana and Teodoro Locsin Jr, were putting the brakes and preventing Manila from falling into the hands of Xi Jinping.
The Philippines was sending mixed signals. Duterte praised Xi Jinping to high heavens but his Cabinet team reassured the Americans of continued robust security relations. It appears the Americans are winning over China in the tug-o-war.
The next five months will be crucial to the US-China rivalry as the Philippines will elect a new set of leaders. There are fears the country will slide towards China in the next six years if the late dictator’s son will win the elections.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr was seen early last year in a Chinese embassy ceremony. The US has not made its move but it could be supporting Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo or Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who has been attacking Duterte’s pro-China policy.
The geopolitical dimension could influence the May elections. It will be an interesting political contest.