By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA – The Philippines has emerged as a frontline state in the rivalry between the United States and China for Southeast Asian power and influence. Locked in a bitter territorial dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea, and with no prospects of a diplomatic resolution in sight, Manila has moved to bolster to its long-standing strategic alliance with Washington.
As China fortifies its military and administrative hold on disputed islands in the Spratly Islands and other South China Sea territories, the Philippines is effectively reverting to its pre-1992 state of strategic affairs, an era when the US helped to determine the island nation’s security and provided strong steering to its foreign policy.
Against China’s growing assertiveness in the region, including a naval standoff over a contested shoal earlier this year, Manila is turning back on almost two decades of relative strategic independence, beginning with the Philippine Senate’s refusal in 1991 to extend the US’s lease at Subic Bay naval base, a military presence nationalistic lawmakers then assailed as a vestige of colonialism and affront to national sovereignty.
Fast forward to the present, Manila is now actively, if not desperately, courting US military support vis-a-vis China. Certain Philippine officials have even signaled an openness to hosting greater numbers of American soldiers in the country on a rotational basis; constitutional provisions bar the establishment of foreign military bases on Philippine soil, a nationalistic reaction to the US’s previous use of the country as a military staging ground.
The two sides already hold annual joint military exercises, known as “shoulder to shoulder”. These are staged ostensibly as practice counter-terrorism operations, but have recently included exercises that could be construed as targeting China, including in areas adjacent to contested South China Sea territories.
The Philippines has also been at the center of revitalized diplomatic efforts among America’s regional treaty and strategic allies, including Japan, Vietnam, and Australia, to form what some view as a US-led “string of pearls” aimed at containing China’s purported expansionary zeal in the region, including its growing naval capabilities in the South China Sea.
At the same time, Manila has pushed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to adopt a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea, while calling for international arbitration to settle its conflicting maritime claims with China. Both moves have put Manila at loggerheads with Beijing and play to existing US positions on the issues.
With regional tensions on the rise, questions are mounting about the strategic wisdom of the President Benigno Aquino government’s current course. Those concerns have tended to focus on four key interrelated issues, namely:
The loss of strategic flexibility and national sovereignty to an overreliance on the US;
Uncertainty over America’s commitment to Philippine national security, especially in the event of an armed confrontation with China, and the depth of Washington’s declared strategic “pivot”;
The sincerity and effectiveness of Manila’s diplomatic efforts, especially on its calls for a regional code of conduct and ASEAN-led conflict resolution;
The rising economic and political costs of confronting China, a major trading partner and source of investments.
The crisis in China-Philippine relations is a product of several factors, ranging from the murky nature of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and lack of an effective regional conflict management mechanism, to growing popular nationalism and military expenditures in China, to deepening geo-strategic competition between a rising China and embattled America over natural resources and for regional maritime primacy.
The escalating territorial conflicts in the Spratlys and other maritime areas are in this context a subset of deeper systemic imbalances, as well as a reflection of weaknesses in the region’s emerging security architecture. UNCLOS, which has motivated overlapping claims within the South China Sea, represents one of those structural flaws.
With each claimant country projecting a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone from its immediate shores, with different parties adopting divergent interpretations of the convention, the entire South China Sea is now plagued with contested claims among Brunei, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Those tensions have recently intensified between the China and the Philippines after a series of incidents at sea.
“China’s baselines are all expressed in its coastal geography through a U-shaped line in the (South China Sea) and in several offshore places. This exceeds those allowed by the UNCLOS and international law,” says Chester Cabalza, a professor at the Philippine National Defense College. “On the other hand, the Philippines, being an archipelagic country, is entitled to enclose large bodies of water within the baselines and assert sovereignty over it.”
The only way to peacefully settle these differences will be through either bilaterally agreed upon arbitration by an international body, or under the aegis of a multilateral regional organization with an enforcement capacity to implement binding rules of behavior. Yet China has so far refused to subject its claims to international arbitration, while regional organizations such as ASEAN lack the power and will to intervene.
China, citing its wide sweeping nine-dash line map, has even refused to acknowledge that its claims in the South China Sea are contested. Those ambitious claims could have grave strategic and economic implications for the region’s smaller countries and as such have coaxed former critics and adversaries in the region into Washington’s strategic embrace.
“If you take the doctrine to its logical conclusion, it means that [China] will have the final say or sovereignty over who passes through such an important international waterway by subjecting it to internal waterway regulations,” said prominent Filipino intellectual and legislator Walden Bello. “This is where the real fear begins for many smaller neighbors such as the Philippines and Vietnam.”
In 2002, ASEAN and China agreed upon a non-binding, highly symbolic “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea”. A decade later, there has been no concrete movement in terms of building even guidelines for a binding agreement. In large part that’s because Beijing refuses to acknowledge that features of the Paracel and Spratly island chains are contested, including by the Philippines and Vietnam.
The recent fiasco in Phnom Penh, where ASEAN members failed to issue a final communique for the first time in the grouping’s history, demonstrated its impotence vis-a-vis China’s influence over certain smaller member states – in this case Cambodia. It also highlighted the grouping’s well-established inability to contemplate and resolve regional problems.
“The Phnom Penh summit reflected the fundamental structural deficiencies within ASEAN, whereby you have no dispute settlement mechanisms within the charter and mechanisms of the organization,” said Herman Kraft, former director of the Manila-based Institute for Strategic and Developmental Studies. “The summit works on the basis of consensus, so if there is no consensus there is no resolution.”
The lack of ASEAN cohesion and integrity signals a trend towards China using its economic power to drive a wedge within the grouping and in the multilateral vacuum pressure smaller states through bilateral means. Aware of Manila’s dependence on tourism and commodity exports, Beijing has recently deployed a combination of travel bans, non-tariff barriers and threats of economic sanctions to pressure the Philippines. Its ban on Philippine banana exports, for example, has recently deprived Manila of a US$250 million market.
With countries such as Cambodia, which relies heavily on Chinese trade and investment, now openly opposing other pro-US ASEAN members such as the Philippines, the organization is arguably splintering on China versus US geo-strategic lines.
“There is a neo-Cold war in the region … the region is torn between the US and China,” said Cabalza. “This is very apparent in most official regional and multilateral engagements that I have attended. Actually, all Indo-Chinese countries in ASEAN are handcuffed by China.”
The US and its strategic allies, meanwhile, have recently bolstered aid to the Philippines. Japan recently signed a new defense pact with the Philippines, which together with South Korea, will help Manila to improve its deterrence and maritime surveillance capacities. Australia, too, is set to step up its security cooperation with Manila, thanks to the Philippine Senate’s recent ratification of a long pending Status of Forces Agreement.
As part of its declared “pivot” to Asia, the US has offered a mixture of aid, military hardware, increased joint-military exercises, and financial support to the Philippines. Washington’s call for “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea and “peaceful settlement of disputes” through a more binding code of conduct under ASEAN and UNCLOS have fortified Philippine positions.
So how will China respond? A tumultuous leadership transition, slowing economy and growing social discontent have all recently pushed Beijing in a more nationalistic direction. By projecting confidence and assertiveness on foreign fronts, including the South China Sea, Chinese leaders apparently hope to distract attention from rising domestic challenges.
Other actors, including the People’s Liberation Army’s navy (PLAN), a major recipient of ballooning military expenditures, are believed to be conducting their own independent strategic policies.
“The situation is becoming more complex, with China’s armed forces becoming more influential within the internal power equation in China and using the territorial issue as a springboard to legitimize its rising influence within the establishment,” said Philippine lawmaker Bello.
China’s growing investments in offshore drilling technology and brown and blue naval capabilities signal to strategic analysts a medium-term drive to lock down and take ownership over the South China Sea’s potentially rich stores of energy resources. At the same time, Beijing is believed to harbor a longer-term strategy of dominating the South China Sea’s international sea lanes to supplant the US’s maritime supremacy in the Asia-Pacific and establish its own.
Although China has been widely criticized for stoking recent regional tensions, there are concomitant concerns about the Philippines’ responses. Analysts note that China-Philippine bilateral ties were strong until 2009 but then suddenly deteriorated after a series of diplomatic spats and maritime incidents.
“The main trigger, as I see it, was the deadline of submission of claims under UNCLOS whereby the Philippines and Vietnam somehow internationalized their territorial claims against China,” said Kraft. He says China sees “the Philippines as an irrelevant player – amidst a frank assessment that the US is a declining power – so how dare it threaten to take China to international arbitration over claims in the [South China Sea].”
There are also concerns that the Philippines has overestimated America’s security commitment vis-a-vis China. As a result, Manila has adopted an overly aggressive diplomatic strategy in its dealings with fellow ASEAN countries, witnessed by the recent breakdown in consensus in Phnom Penh. The Philippines’ pitched rhetoric against China is believed to have alienated ASEAN members, like Indonesia, who have pursued a more moderate diplomacy on South China Sea issues.
“In terms of assertion of Philippine sovereignty, the government has overall done a good job. It has used all diplomatic means to impress its legitimate claims to features in the Spratlys,” said Bello. “My only reservation is the increasing reliance on America to deter Chinese aggression … Now what we have are regional states locked into a superpower confrontation, sidelining legitimate territorial disputes. Thus hawks have been empowered at the expense of those who have emphasized the wisdom of creative diplomacy.”
Unless Manila is able to arrive at a “third way” – utilizing creative diplomacy and multilateral dispute settlement mechanisms – strategic reliance on the US will likely grow in the years ahead. Yet if an armed conflict erupts with China, it is not certain that the US would come to the Philippines’ rescue. (The US-Philippine mutual defense treaty could be interpreted in a way that does not cover contested territories.) The US’s “pivot” towards Asia, meanwhile, has given China added motivation to militarize its territorial claims in the region.
“The Americans are sweet talkers. The Philippines should not rely on US military capability in case of a conflict with China in the [South China Sea],” said Cabalza. “The US will not save us and won’t act as our knight in shining armor. The US will protect its own economic and strategic interests with China.”
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst. He has reported for or been quoted in The Diplomat, UPI, Foreign Policy, Tehran Times, Russia Today, Foreign Policy in Focus, among other publications.
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