Making the rounds in the Pacific and southeast Asia in his latest overseas trip, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter bragged about the growing regional interest around the South China Sea in hosting a US presence, attributing it to the disputes with China in the area.
China is one of 10 nations in the region around the South China Sea with conflicting maritime claims. The US largely doesn’t get involved in those disputes unless one of the parties involved is China, in which case the US always backed the other party.
Though most of these disputes have existed as irrelevant boundary disputes for many decades, the US has gotten a great deal of mileage out of railing at China for building an artificial island in the area near the Spratlys. This has included the US making high-profile sail-bys of the island, and making it clear they are doing so purely to spite China.
With China warning about US “provocations” and vowing to defend its interests in the area, the other nations with competing claims are seeing themselves increasingly perceived as de facto US allies on the matter, if only because the US publicly declared them so before picking a fight with China. Now, those nations are all lining up to host US forces, figuring that if the disputes in the area turn into an outright shooting war, it’ll be easier for them to have the US Navy handle it.
That’s been the Philippines’ plan all along, for instance. They’ve been very public about planning to use the US military to enforce their maritime claims against China, and the US has done nothing to dissuade them from this course of action. It’s only inevitable that other small regional powers would now be looking to do the same.