It is true that neither friends nor enemies will stay the same, yet interests will always stay in the full circle. In the last Florida Meeting of US President Donald Trump and People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping on April 7, we have seen a change of heart. Initially, Trump administration wants the summit to focus on the trade imbalance between the two countries, the threat posed by North Korea, and China’s militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Read more: A ‘new normal’ in South China Sea
On the other hand, President Rodrigo R. Duterte on Monday (April 10) said his order to the military to reinforce islands in the South China Sea controlled by the Philippines was to maintain the geopolitical balance and assured China that no “offensive weapons” would be placed there. The President said that the Philippines wanted peace and friendship with China but Manila needed to bolster what territory it had in the South China Sea because “everybody’s grabbing” islands in the Spratly archipelago. But here are the caveats in the ever-changing security landscape.
It will shape the discourse of the emerging regional trade and security architecture in Asia in no less time. We are now to the point of no return; everything is either low or high stakes gamble in the political arena
Here are the fascinating realities of the Philippines when it comes to its main problem right now scaling at international level – the South China Sea / West Philippine Sea dilemma. The Philippines can’t match China’s military power. That is obvious and already given. President Duterte might opt for other actions to defend the country’s sovereignty over the shoal and fulfill his duty.
Second, Justice Antonio Carpio suggested the filing of a formal protest over China’s incursions in Panatag Shoal. Let us remember that this is what the Vietnamese did recently when China sent cruise tours to the disputed Parcels but to no avail, it gives a resolution. All formal protests from the United States, Vietnam, Philippines, and others have not worked before.
China still continues to rock the boat of security in ASEAN. This is going to be resolved if the formal protest would be tried in Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which will painstakingly cost the Philippines much instead of focusing on its internal security operations against threat groups like Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), BIFF, KIM, AKP, NPA, and alike.
Maritime air surveillance and intelligence surveillance reconnaissance in support of maritime security operations and training for these missions
Third, the government could also send the Philippine Navy to patrol the shoal. By far, we have BP Gregorio del Pilar and BP Alcaraz aside from the dilapidated BP Sierra Madre. The sad reality is the Philippine Navy patrol cannot do anything but report which is understandable if the concern is just to monitor. When it comes to actual battle, those vessels will only die down in just a snap.
Fourth, if the Chinese attack Philippine Navy vessels, then invoke the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty which covers any armed attack on Philippine Navy vessels operating in the South China Sea. This is possible but not probable. The United States moves according to its geopolitical interests, not ours. If they decide not to counterattack, which is very probable, they can make a lot of excuses, especially saying it may cause World War III.
While the Philippines is trying to strengthen its military, it does not want to impress to China that they are like Japan which acts like drawing away from Pacifism
In that sense, the United States is not ready for a military confrontation with China, and China knows this, so they move at will. The world used to tremble at the sound of America’s voice. But it has allowed too many of the world’s spoiled brats to get away with mischief too often that no one respects that booming voice any longer.
Even the carrot in the biggest boy in the block’s vaunted carrot-and-stick approach to ruling his turf no longer works. How can he when, at the expense of his real and most loyal friends like the Philippines, he gives the carrot to those who do not really deserve it.
Lastly, the government may ask the United States to declare the shoal as part of the Philippine territory and accept the standing American offer to hold joint patrols in the South China Sea for that purpose. Again, such declarations and patrols have no effect on Chinese moves. If China can defy US warships in the Spratlys, what more such puny joint patrols can do. What more if they have installed warplanes and missiles.
To counter such occurrences, the only possible way to connect more than a Wi-Fi with China and U.S. is to equibalance beyond imagination. Beyond US and China but also with other states where those superpowers have been allied and connected to the Philippines such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, and other economic tied-up economies. The Philippines only centers on the called facility upgrade which is under the modernization plan of AFP-DND.
Chinese government; ordering the occupation of the 10 or nine islands that were just near Philippines’ shores because there’s a heightening of geopolitical issues and eventually maybe a violent low-intensity war over here
We cannot expect from the Philippines to be more aggressive than its normal behavior inside (i.e. Narco War Campaign and Insurgency crash out). On the other hand, we see a more soft-toned muscle China; hoping that the Philippines could continue to properly manage maritime disputes with it.
I remember a forum that I attended before, wherein Mr. Chito Sta. Romana, a veteran Filipino journalist who has lived and worked in China for more than three decades, sees the election of President Duterte and his desire to open bilateral talks and improve relations with China as an opportunity for opening a new chapter in bilateral ties. But he considers major factors that have an impact; the legal victory attained by the Philippines in its arbitration case against China and the Chinese leadership’s attitude of negating the arbitral tribunal’s ruling.
He believes both sides will need a significant degree of creativity, flexibility, and pragmatism to find a way forward. He considers the key challenge for both sides is to acknowledge and manage their differences as they explore areas of functional cooperation so they can co-exist peacefully as neighboring countries.
Meanwhile, the president could have addressed this to the Chinese government; ordering the occupation of the 10 or nine islands that were just near Philippines’ shores because there’s a heightening of geopolitical issues and eventually maybe a violent low-intensity war over here. To be fair with China, Duterte puts the blame for current tensions in the South China Sea squarely in the United States, for not intervening to stop China from building and arming artificial islands in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Also, if they (US-China) fight each other, we will be hit. Everybody knows, the United States will be stockpiling their weapons there. And they said they would not. The irony is since SCS/WPS is we do not want to get involved in a war between nations. We have extended our hand and friendship to the US government. But here is the catch.
US leadership in the region might be “traded off” if China gave concessions to President Donald Trump on trade, but were also worried about being forced to take sides if ties between China and the US worsened. Moreover, if Sino-US relations break up, Singapore will be forced to take sides between the US and China. This would be a nightmare for the city state, which is used to conducting diplomacy equidistant between the world’s two great powers.
However, with little aggressiveness, the Philippines would not engage in any military buildup and opposed any attempt to deploy weapons on the islands. This is what we call the defensive realize approach by the Philippines. While the Philippines is trying to strengthen its military, it does not want to impress to China that they are like Japan which acts like drawing away from Pacifism. The President knows what he is doing but opt to be wiser than Xi Jinping. The keyword here is BALANCE. EQUI-BALANCE.
It is also wrong to assume that the solution is neither military nor diplomatic, which are dead ends. It also wrong to say that the solution is to sleep with the “enemy” that is, engage in a mining partnership with the giant. The Philippines as the landowner gets a share. China as the capitalist explores and extracts. To assume such kind of exploitation is nonetheless a neoliberal realism which will create a good mechanism.
The world used to tremble at the sound of America’s voice. But it has allowed too many of the world’s spoiled brats to get away with mischief
At one hand, the Philippines as a partner is better. China will try to give us the tail of the fish, but we can negotiate. In other words, we give the Chinese permission to mine only if they respect our territory and give us our share. This solution dissipates a US-China military konfrontasi. China might just agree to avoid a future unpredictable situation. In truth, China and the United States know there can be an accidental nuclear war when super-forces go eye-ball-to-eye-ball.
Let’s face it, the sustainable development of the Philippines does not lie in it’s pulling itself by its own bootstraps, so to speak, but by engaging geopolitically and geoeconomically its larger periphery controlled by economic and political superpowers in East Asia and the Asia Pacific (i.e. China and the United States so to speak). The fact is the ASEAN intra-regional trade is much smaller than its inter-regional trade and its security relies mostly on a modus vivendi with the superpowers.
At large, Philippines must meddle in a good position. Case in point, the newly acquired planes are expected to enhance our country’s capacity in maritime security as well as provide the Philippine Navy the needed air assets for their missions concerning humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, transportation and maritime domain awareness, including maritime air surveillance and intelligence surveillance reconnaissance in support of maritime security operations and training for these missions. Mostly, the capability build up will harness military personnel and mold the Philippines in good shape of defensive posturing.
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In a nutshell, while there is a very limited expectation of specific outcomes from the last Florida Summit, it will shape the discourse of the emerging regional trade and security architecture in Asia in no less time. We are now to the point of no return; everything is either low or high-stakes gamble in the political arena.
Jumel Gabilan Estrañero is a defense analyst/researcher in the Philippine government while teaching political science, geopolitics, international negotiation, multilateral diplomacy, political economy & geography, international trade, practice and policies, and other social sciences. He specializes in defense & security, strategy & policy, South China Sea, Terrorism, global & regional politics, and special intelligence. His articles have appeared and quoted in Asia Times, Asia Maritime Reviews, The Nation (Bangkok, Thailand), Southeast Asian Times, PressReader, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Times, and Malaya Business Insights. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.