Some lawmakers in Manila are upset with American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the United States does not take sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. They should know, however, that a declaration of American neutrality in terms of the competing claims in the area is in fact more beneficial to the Philippines.
The American position on the Scarborough crisis, as articulated by Secretary Clinton in yesterday’s Philippine-American ministerial dialogue in Washinton, is actually more nuanced than the supposed neutrality that these lawmakers—and the Daily Tribune— are trying to paint. While Washington does not take sides on sovereignty issues; it has declared that it is against the threat or the use of force, and is in favor of a multilateral approach, in solving the Scarborough crisis. It has also reiterated that it will honor its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and that it will commit itself to building a “minimum credible defense posture” for the Philippines.
China’s actions in the shoal these past eighteen days have made it apparent that its strategy is to gain control of the territory through bullying tactics, as opposed to the Philippines’ desire to resolve the stand-off through a rules-based mechanism. China also insists that the Scarborough issue is a bilateral matter that must not internationalized, but the Philippines thinks otherwise. By calling for a “collaborative and multilateral diplomatic process” to resolve the stand-off, therefore, Washington has basically adopted Manila’s stance.
Of course, by saying that it will abide by the MDT, the United States is merely being strategically ambiguous, since that treaty does not have an ‘automatic retaliation’ clause. Obviously, Washington intends to keep its options open. This should not be a source of concern for the Philippines, however, since strategic ambiguity also characterizes the American position on Taiwan. Indeed, in the event of an actual armed attack on any Philippine vessel in the shoal, the Americans will surely come to the Philippines’ aid, just as they will come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion from the Mainland. They just have to. Not doing so would make the United States appear unreliable in terms of honoring its treaty obligations, which will surely spook the four other treaty allies in the Pacific and turn away Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and the other Asian countries that the Americans have been trying to win over.
So, when militant leftist congressman Neri Colmenares said that Secretary Clinton’s declaration could embolden China “to start a limited war in the shoal just as it did to Vietnam,” we know that he’s just being, well, a typical militant leftist. This statement, which is a stark contrast to his Bayan Muna Party’s earlier demands for the US to stay off the territorial disputes, reinforces the perception that for the militant left, things are often a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The truth of the matter is that a shooting war in the Scarborough would be more probable had the United States declared support for the Philippines’ sovereignty claims to the shoal. Such a declaration would validate the suspicion held by many Chinese citizens that the Philippines is merely acting as a proxy for the supposedly vicious American agenda of encircling China and containing its rise. The hawks in Beijing– like General Luo Yuan and the Global Times, for example– could in turn use this to further fan nationalist flames, which would extremely limit the wiggle room for the Chinese government to make compromises with its Philippine counterpart. This would make it very difficult for both sides to diplomatically manage the on-going stand-off.
Clearly, despite these lawmakers’ concerns, the Philippines has been able to get the minimum American support it needs. Its negotiators, however, could have done better in pressing for greater American assistance in terms of upgrading the country’s terribly dilapidated armed forces. But that’s for another blog entry.
ALSO: I have written extensively on how the United States balances its different interests in the context of the South China Sea disputes in an article called “Will the US Come to the Philippines’ Aid in the Spratlys?” which I wrote last year. See also: “Manila Should Understand How Beijing Works, Too.“
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