An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter launches during flight operations aboard the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea, July 17, 2020. — US NAVY/MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST 2ND CLASS CODIE L. SOULE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS.

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE UNITED STATES military will probably increase its presence in the South China Sea after pulling out of Afghanistan, in a move that will counter Chinese militarization of the disputed water, political analysts said.

Celebratory gunfire echoed across Kabul as Taliban fighters took control of the airport before dawn on Aug. 31 after the withdrawal of the last US troops, ending 20 years of war that left the Islamic militia stronger than it was in 2001.

The withdrawal is a strategic “retrenchment” to free up US capability to compete with rivals like China and Russia, said Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University.

“The US has realized that staying in Afghanistan does not provide any benefits,” he said in a Zoom interview. “It’s not a maritime domain and they were putting a lot of money for nothing.”

“What do you do when you realize that your investment is not earning? You cut loose. This is what you call strategic retrenchment,” he added. “They have been spending so much resources on Afghanistan and these have to be cut because they have other priorities in the Indo-Pacific.”

The US could now focus on more pressing foreign policy issues, including the South China Sea dispute, Mr. De Castro said.

Taliban officials have indicated that they would boost ties with China and other nations.

The Taliban’s takeover could present political and economic opportunities for China, including developing Afghanistan’s vast mineral riches, AP reported. Beijing has said it was ready to help rebuild the impoverished nation, it said.

The Philippines should expect the US to deploy more patrol ships in the South China Sea, while helping its former colony boost its naval force, Mr. De Castro said.

“The focus of the US will be in this region,” he said. “They will give us more attention. We can expect more resources from them.”

The pullout indicates the seriousness of the US in meeting security challenges from regional powers, said Victor Andres Manhit, president of a local policy think tank.

The obsession to contain extremist groups in Afghanistan “gave China room to rise in the Indo-Pacific,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

It also allowed Russia to disrupt Eastern Europe and the Middle East and enabled Iran and North Korea to advance their own nuclear ambitions, he said.

“Getting out of Afghanistan is part of a broader effort to refocus on core strategic challenges, specifically those in the Indo-Pacific region which the Biden administration considers more important,” Mr. Manhit said.

The US exit from Afghanistan, which led to the sudden fall of the capital Kabul to the Taliban, has sparked debates about the credibility of its commitment to allies, including the Philippines. The lack of an exit plan for Afghans who aided the American war against Muslim insurgents just worsened the speculation, according to international observers.

China’s Global Times has warned Taiwan leaders that the US would not fight if Beijing were to attack, saying that “they cannot count on Washington, as Afghanistan is not the first place where the US abandoned its allies, nor will it be the last.”

Jose Antonio Custodio, a security and defense consultant, said the US has to consider its own survival when trying to defend an ally such as the Philippines.

This should not be a problem as long as the Philippines and other partners are picking up their own weight in an alliance, he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

The Philippines is unlikely to become the next Afghanistan in case it is attacked by China or local extremists because its interests “are very much well-aligned with those of the US,” said Robin Michael Garcia, a political economy professor at the University of Asia and the Pacific.

“The material interests of the US will always come first,” he said by telephone. “That’s a reality in international politics.”

The Philippines can still rely on American security guarantees in case of an attack in the South China Sea because the disputed waterway is a key global trade route, Mr. Garcia said.

“The US has always called for a rules-based order in the South China Sea and it has especially called for freedom of navigation because stifling of trade in that area will affect how much they earn,” he said. “It’s very clear that in the South China Sea, the interests of the US are huge because of trade.”

It’s difficult to compare the behavior of the US in the Middle East or in Afghanistan with its behavior in Asia, Mr. Garcia said. “The interests of the US are very much aligned with the interests of East Asian and Southeast Asian countries.”

International observers have said that the South China Sea is important for the regional ambitions of China, which has been competing with the US in trade.

The sea lanes that pass through the South China Sea are the busiest, most important in the world, Marvin Ott, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said in an article published by research group Wilson Center.

In 2016, the sea lanes in the disputed area carried a third of global shipping worth about $3.4 trillion, including almost 40% of China’s total trade and 6% of America’s, he said.

“Does the US still consider the West Philippine Sea important to its interests?” Antonio P. Contreras, a political science professor at De La Salle asked, referring to areas of the sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. “If so, they will not withdraw from it, they will still support us.”

“The dispute in the West Philippine Sea is not an issue of terrorism but an issue of free access,” he said. “Afghanistan is a landlocked country. What is its strategic importance to the US except that it is a breeding ground for terrorism?”

Meanwhile, Mr. Contreras said the miscalculation of the US in Afghanistan might become a harbinger for the decline of superpower interventionism.

“US credibility inevitably takes a hit no matter how justifiable the withdrawal from Afghanistan was,” said Herman Joseph S. Kraft, who heads the University of the Philippines Political Science Department.

Mr. Kraft said President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who had suspended a key military pact with the US, might use the issue to justify the pivot to China once the “human rights lobby (against the Philippine government) in the US Congress gains ground.”

Still, US-Philippines relations remain stable because “majority of the Philippine defense and military establishment remains committed to the alliance,” Mr. Custodio said. 

“No matter how local pro-Chinese elements belonging to the Duterte administration and even within the Philippine military will want to spin it, the Philippine-US alliance remains on stable ground,” he said. “It does the job in addressing the country’s existing security challenges without the need for an excessive US presence.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Contreras said Taliban victory in Afghanistan could boost the morale of extremist groups operating in Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines.

“Extremist groups usually are inspired by this collective sense of affinity with Jihads all over the world,” he said. “Their morale will be boosted by that.”

The Philippines can expect support from the US in its counter-terrorism measures despite Washington’s shifting priorities, Mr. Custodio said.

“Even with the US pivot to Asia going on in the previous years, the US remained focused and dedicated in anti-terrorism support to allies and partners who experience domestic terrorist challenges,” the defense analyst said.

He noted that the US had extensively helped the Philippine armed forces when the Islamic State-linked Maute group attacked the Marawi City in southern Philippines in 2017 even while Washington was conducting freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea.

“It is not a zero-sum situation when it comes to terrorism vis-a-vis China for the US,” Mr. Custodio said.

The Philippines should expect more help from the US especially after President Rodrigo R. Duterte changed his mind about ending a visiting forces agreement with America, he added.

“These activities will cover a wide range of issues from counter-terrorism, external defense enhancement and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” he added.