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Photo taken on April 5, 2016 shows the lighthouse on Zhubi Reef of Nansha Islands in the South China Sea, south China. (Xinhua file photo)
The United States likes to think of itself as a force for peace, law and justice, and the deployment of two aircraft carriers on a "training mission" in East Asia obviously backs up that aspiration. Or does it?
The timing of the operation -- just ahead of a ruling on South China Sea disputes -- is surely a deliberated one. The United States has dressed up the illegal, unilateral arbitration instigated by the Philippines as a noble act of homage to international law, while China's complete ambivalence toward irrelevant proceedings in The Hague is painted as disrespectful and a violation of that same international law.
Why the big show of strength now?
After countless promises not to take sides in South China Sea disputes, the arrival of the warships is presumably just another aspect of the "peaceful resolution based on international law" which the Obama administration has so consistently advocated.
Since the Philippines took it upon itself to open the arbitration, China has been drawn as the neighborhood bully who wants to militarize the region, but facts speak louder than hollow words and now more than 60 countries openly support China's stance. Could that be what all these warships, fighter jets and troops are about?
To the United States, these moves might look like "peace, law and justice," but to everyone else they appear to be exactly what they are: militarization.
Even the Philippines smells a rat. On Tuesday, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines' president-elect, said that he had asked the U.S. ambassador whether Washington would support the Philippines in a confrontation with China.
"Are you with us or are you not with us?" asked Duterte.
"Only if you are attacked," the ambassador replied.
There's the rub. Is U.S. support for the arbitration really for the sake of the Philippines? Or is it all about China?
If there are any lessons to be learned from the past, the Philippines would know that bringing outsiders into any dispute invariably complicates matters, and never calms things down.
To paraphrase "Game of Thrones," the Philippines may well ask themselves whether it is worthy "to fight for the master who would never fight and die for you?"
As a new president preparing to assume office, Duterte would do well to give a thought to returning to the negotiating table. China will welcome him there.