Last of Three Parts
In drawing up the roadmap to a more secure Philippines and Asia, it’s imperative to keep foremost in mind the end-state that foreign and defense policies aim to deliver.
For the current tenets of the Aquino administration—anchored on the enhanced U.S. alliance and increased military presence, direct confrontation with China over territory, and the call to many countries to back the Philippines—the likely direction is toward a balance of power containing Beijing’s perceived aggression with a Washington-led regional security cordon. Pitting power against power, the likely end-result is one of constant tensions and confrontation in the region.
There is an alternative end-state: growing harmony, trust and understanding among nations and powers in Asia. It is this long-term goal that is the vision and hope of the three Philippine defense and foreign policy strategies proposed in the second part of this article: Restore warm but equidistant relations with America, China and Japan. Downplay disputes and undertake confidence-boosting collaboration. And build up Philippine defense capabilities, rather than depending on other nations.
Amid today’s chronic territorial tensions and confrontations between China and the Philippines, it’s hard to imagine how the second end-state can come about. But in fact, that was the situation for more than a decade. China, the Philippines, and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations enjoyed generally warm relations, with disputes never allowed to sour the overall harmony, while still being quietly addressed.
For instance, the Chinese had been hosting talks on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea for several years. Progress have have been slow, but tensions were kept down, too. And among confidence-building measures, China, the Philippines and Vietnam collaborated in a joint seismic study in 2007 in areas of rival claims.
Things changed during the Aquino administration. From a practice of downplaying and quietly settling territorial frictions, both China and the Philippines openly and directly confronted each other, with Manila going further and elevating their differences to a United Nations body, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos).
Moreover, to counter China’s military might, the Philippines revved up the rotation of American naval and air forces through the archipelago, injecting the dispute over islets and shoals into the emerging big-power rivalry between Beijing and Washington. Japan’s own tensions with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands added to the mix, while Asean became an arena for China and the U.S. to vie for regional support.
Is there a way to disengage from the three-pronged conflict-prone policies of big-power military buildup, direct territorial confrontation, and alliance-based security, and begin moving toward greater harmony, confidence-building, and defense self-reliance? It won’t be easy, and the current leadership in Manila, Tokyo and Washington are unlikely to go for it. But with a conciliatory, collaborative approach, especially in Beijing and Manila, the route to the alternative end-state can be taken.
As the main parties to the South China Sea tensions, China and the Philippines are the key players in defusing tensions and building harmony. As a first step, the two must forge agreement to stop and gradually reverse the actions that have moved both nations and the region at large toward balance-of-power confrontation.
Among the actions to cease and decrease: the entry of vessels from both sides, especially China, in disputed areas, and the open denunciations and confrontation on territorial issues. Instead, both sides should agree to stay out of areas of tension, and establish mechanisms for quick dialogue and quiet resolution of incidents.
The key question here is whether Beijing will agree to pull back from areas of confrontation. It can be persuaded—if the Philippines agrees to stall and eventually diminish the U.S. military buildup in the archipelago, including the planned grant of access to bases. This move by Manila would also help bring it back to a more neutral position vis-a-vis big regional powers, just like Asean itself, and make China more willing to accept a Code of Conduct limiting military activity in disputed areas.
To reduce the threat of American forces against its mainland and its maritime trade, China would be willing to reduce tensions and afford greater security for the Philippines. Indeed, Beijing knows that Manila will only open the doors wider to Washington’s might unless there are clear actions and assurances that security threats will be reduced.
Assuming China and the Philippines agree to reduce both territorial confrontation and military buildup, what next? The two can then resume past discussions and initiatives toward confidence-building activities in disputed areas, including joint exploration and exploitation of resources in disputed areas.
Notably, in his August 2011 trip to China, President Benigno Aquino 3rd discussed joint oil exploration in the Spratlys, the next step after the joint seismic study under his predecessor. But after he visited the United States the following month, nothing more was heard of joint exploration. Instead, territorial frictions escalated.
Washington had been unwelcoming toward joint activities between China and the Philippines in disputed areas. The U.S. Embassy in Manila publicly criticized the joint seismic study, prompting then President Gloria Arroyo to bring up the matter with her counterpart George W. Bush. It seems Aquino decided to listen to the Americans’ objections to joint exploration.
If the Philippines, however, undertakes joint activities with China and other rival claimants, it would not only reduce tensions and harness resources. It would also put Manila in a position to press China to rein in its fishermen and maritime surveillance vessels. After all, if Beijing really means to collaborate with rival claimants, it should show good faith by avoiding provocative actions.
The final principle underpinning the alternative end-state of regional harmony and national security is defense self-reliance. Plainly, relying mainly on foreign allies and thus allowing their forces to operate in massive force in the archipelago, will necessarily pull the Philippines into the myriad security and geopolitical issues of its allies—something a small power doesn’t need and simply can’t cope with.
Rather, once tensions decline and collaboration resumes in the South China Sea, the Philippines will have time to build up its maritime defense capabilities, mainly by procuring vessels and aircraft with anti-ship missiles. At the same time, ships from friendly nations can call on Philippine ports and even get supplies and send servicemen ashore for R&R. Hopefully, one of those cordial states would be China.
Now isn’t a better state of affairs than endless tension and increasing militarization for years to come? It’s at least worth a try in this administration or the next.