“Our message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours,” says President Benigno S. Aquino in his annual State of the Nation Address in Congress last Monday. “Setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue.”
Recto Bank is the Filipino term for Reeds Bank, which is located between the Spratlys and Palawan, and within the country’s 300 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Recto Avenue, on the other hand, is a street in Manila that leads to the presidential palace
This has to be the boldest stance ever taken by a Philippine president on the disputes in the West Philippine Sea (Manila’s term for the South China Sea). Marcos, although he strengthened the Philippine claim on the Spratlys by putting up an airstrip and some garrisons on several islets there, never lifted a finger when the Vietnamese grabbed one of the Philippine-held island there in the 1970s. Ramos rallied the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) against Chinese military build-up on Mischief Reef, but in the end, despite singing an Elvis Presley duet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, he couldn’t do anything about China’s island-grab. Arroyo, of course, cozied up to China by coming up with a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU)— Manila’s bungle, according to Barry Wain—apparently in exchange for Chinese loans that, unlike Japanese and European loans, had little or no safety nets against graft and corruption.
The traditional point of view among Philippine foreign policy makers and Manila’s commentariat is that the natural track for the Philippines is to rally the support of the ASEAN against China. The idea is that the Philippines is no match for China if it were to deal with it alone. But if it gets the ASEAN to deal with China as a group, there would be greater balance in terms of leverage. This formula had worked in the 1990s and, as a result, China was forced to sign the 2002 Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea.
However, the dynamics of ASEAN-China relationship have changed through the years. And, despite the optimism of its fans, it now seems that the ASEAN track, while still potentially workable, has become less viable for the Philippines. For instance, in the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting last week in Bali, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario failed to get the support of the ASEAN in rejecting the nine-dash claim of China over the whole of the West Philippine Sea. The nine-dash doctrine impedes freedom of navigation and is therefore against the interest of the maritime Southeast Asian states. Only fellow claimant Vietnam supported the Philippine position, while Malaysia and Brunei said they would study it. Perhaps the only victory for the Philippines in that meeting was the adoption of the implementing guidelines of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, but that had been pending for the past nine years. Besides, neither the Declaration nor its implementing guidelines would solve the disputes if Beijing continues to assert “undisputed sovereignty” over the whole sea. Del Rosario was correct in pointing out that China’s nine-dash claim should be seen as “a game-changer.”
The reason for this seeming inability of the ASEAN to tackle China is that, unlike in the 1990s when China was still an emerging regional power and ASEAN still had economic leverage over Beijing, the balance of leverage has greatly tilted towards China from 2000 onwards. As China’s economy began to grow and eventually overtake Japan’s, Beijing embarked on a charm offensive towards Southeast Asian states. Aside from strengthening trade ties, China offered investments, technological transfers and soft loans to ASEAN members. And the loans China offered were very lucrative for Southeast Asian kleptocrats indeed; the Chinese did not care whether Chinese aid went to where it was intended to or not. And why would they? They will get paid eventually anyway. Even the Philippines, during the Arroyo decade, benefited from this, prompting Arroyo herself to call China the region’s big brother.
As a result, ASEAN nations that are not party to the West Philippine Sea dispute are now reluctant to support the ASEAN claimants, perhaps fearing that weighing in on the disputes could be put their own bilateral ties with China at risk. Beijing’s charm offensive and “peaceful rise” overtures, obviously a disguise for a divide-and-conquer scheme, has apparently worked.
Apparently taking note of this new reality, the Philippines, while not abandoning the ASEAN track altogether, is seeking other options. Among them is international arbitration of the disputes by either the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), which Vietnam is supporting. “Vietnam joins the Philippines’ initiative in calling for a rules-based approach in resolving the maritime disputes,” saysVietnamese Ambassador to the Philippines Nguyen Vu Tu. China, however, has repeatedly rejected adjudication of the disputes by these international courts.
With the view of keeping the disputes a multilateral instead of bilateral issue, it seems that the next viable option that the Philippines, and even Vietnam, see is to continue dragging the United States into the dispute. The Philippines has sought the clarification of the United States position and an expression of American support for Philippine defense, which Manila got during Del Rosario’s visit to Washington last month. Similarly, Vietnam is falling into the American orbit.
This has put the United States on the spot. As a result, the Americans are doing a careful balancing act, as we have observed on this website before. On one hand, aside from the fact that China has trillions of US Treasury bills and that trade and investment ties between China and America is worth billions of dollars, the Americans need Chinese cooperation on many multilateral issues including nuclear proliferation, Libya and climate change. On the other hand, the Americans need to assure its partners (Vietnam) and allies (Philippines) in the region that it is more beneficial for them to maintain strong ties with the United States than not. This is to prevent Southeast Asia from falling into the orbit of China and China from gaining absolute control of the sea lanes in the West Philippine Sea, both of which would put the United States on a long-term geopolitical disadvantage.
But ultimately, in the event of actual conflict, I believe public opinion would compel the United States to, albeit reluctantly, come to the immediate aid of the Philippines. Of course, the Americans will try their best to prevent such a conflict. And this is where the President’s saber-rattling could have value.
When the President sends a message that the Philippines is serious about “defending what is ours,” he is raising the security stakes, from a broader regional perspective, in the West Philippine Sea. This gives new urgency to the United States’ efforts to discourage China from further escalating the tensions in the disputed areas. This makes making China behave not just a Philippine but an American objective. Indeed, it could even become an objective for cooler heads in Beijing as well.
“We do not wish to increase tensions with anyone, but we must let the world know that we are ready to protect what is ours,” says the President. And to back this bold posture up, he is beefing up the incredibly weak Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
“Soon, we will be seeing capability upgrades and the modernization of the equipment of our armed forces. At this very moment, our very first Hamilton Class Cutter is on its way to our shores. We may acquire more vessels in the future—these, in addition to helicopters and patrol crafts, and the weapons that the AFP, PNP, and DOJ will buy in bulk to get a significant discount.” Indeed, some have observed that the AFP’s modernization has been faster under Aquino’s one year than the fifteen years under the three previous presidents combined.
The message to China is clear. The Philippines is no longer under a meek leadership. Would the leadership in Beijing respond with caution, with the view that, while the Philippines may be no match for Beijing, any confrontation may lead to an escalation of conflict, and possibly even involve the United States, which would benefit no one? Or would the hawks there be further emboldened by what they and their nationalist constituency would see as arrogant provocations from the Philippines?
The ball is now in China’s court.