[Second of three parts]
WITH the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling for the Philippines in its case challenging China’s “nine-dash line” claim over most of the South China Sea, the geopolitical ball is now in Rodrigo Duterte’s court.
How the Philippines’ new President plays would impact the next round of high-stakes rivalry between America and China for preeminence in East Asia.
Why Duterte? How can the leader of a nation with the weakest military in the region call the shots in the match between China—with the largest armed forces on the planet—and the United States, which has the most powerful?
Ask Washington’s former ambassador to Manila Kristie Kenney. Now a high-ranking State Department counselor, the veteran diplomat is in town to meet with top officials.
Her likely mission: to keep the US-Philippines alliance intact, and to ensure that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) boosting American forces in the archipelago and giving them access to Philippine bases stays on track.
That’s the big if in Sino-American rivalry that President Duterte now holds in his raised fist: Will he implement the EDCA in full, prompting China to escalate even more its South China Sea forces as a counterweight to US deployment in the Philippines?
The confrontation scenario
So what’s looming in Round 2 of the US-China bout? Let’s look at three scenarios: confrontation, conciliation, and collective security.
The confrontation scenario assumes the continued adversarial stance of the Philippines and its allies toward China, and vice-versa. With the PCA giving international legal teeth to our nation’s claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, there will be even greater political, public, media and international impetus for the Duterte administration to push hard against Beijing in the South China Sea, despite our President’s avowed wish to mend fences with the Chinese.
Kenney’s visit and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s call to his new Philippine counterpart will likely be followed by similar exhortations from Japan and other allies for Duterte to maintain the assertive course.
If he bites, then the coming years, if not decades, would see even more tension and military buildup in the South China Sea—possibly even a shooting war.
With US forces rotating in the Philippines and establishing facilities in five bases, the People’s Liberation Army cannot but further escalate its naval and air deployment on the high seas. The PLA must protect the mainland and its vital sea lanes in the South China Sea, where four-fifths of Chinese oil imports pass—both within range of nuclear-capable cruise missiles on American vessels and aircraft in the archipelago.
As China expands military-capable facilities in the Spratlys, the US would likely send more ships and planes to monitor and challenge Chinese actions, especially those asserting territorial rights voided by the PCA ruling, or imposing restrictions on vessels and aircraft. The latter includes the feared declaration of an air defense identification zone like the ADIZ imposed in the East China Sea in 2013.
In this cauldron of geopolitical and military rivalry, accidents and miscalculations would be more and more likely, triggering violent incidents. These conflicts would then provoke even more animosity, one-upmanship, arms escalation, and confrontation—especially if the peoples of rival powers get more agitated and pressed for aggressive actions.
Amid this intensifying rivalry, the Philippines would be a frontline state, whose territory would necessarily be targeted by Chinese ballistic missiles ready to neutralize US forces in the archipelago, plus the Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Nueva Ecija, Palawan, and Pampanga bases used by them.
China would treat the Philippines as America did Cuba, which nearly hosted Russian nukes, just as we now harbor nuclear-capable US naval and air assets. One possible target of Beijing’s reprisal: 170,000 Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong.
With all this looming in the confrontation scenario, one can see why Duterte may prefer talking with Beijing.
The conciliation scenario
If our Commander-in-Chief takes his avowed conciliatory approach toward China, that should moderate tensions, at least in the short term and maybe longer.
For one thing, the Philippines would not accept any deal that does not enhance the security of the country and its maritime economic zones and claimed territories. Without giving up its territorial claims, China would need to accept protocols to prevent encroachments and confrontations like those in Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal.
Also likely to be a Philippine demand is an end or slowdown in the buildup of military-capable Chinese facilities in the South China Sea, as well as reclamation and other maritime activities, which the PCA ruled to be in violation of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
For its part, Beijing would press for the removal of US forces from the Philippines—a demand far more urgent than its territorial claims, since the nuclear-armed Seventh Fleet poses grave threats to China and its shipping, including nuclear attack.
Washington and Tokyo would, of course, vehemently oppose scrapping the EDCA, which would set back the transfer of 60 percent of American naval assets to East Asia under the Pivot-to-Asia strategy deemed crucial for the defense of US allies.
In this contest over the EDCA’s future, expect China, the US and Japan to woo the Philippines with economic assistance as well as trade and investment, plus security-enhancing initiatives, including the above-mentioned mechanisms to avoid encroachments and limit maritime militarization.
If Duterte leans toward China, as his leftist allies would favor, expect Beijing to pour capital, commerce, tourism, and aid into the country to further enhance ties and give Filipinos less reason to fear the Chinese and bring in the Americans.
As for Washington and Tokyo, they and Western media would not take kindly to an EDCA about-face. Aid and trade favors may dwindle, and criticism of Duterte could mount. In an extreme situation, he could be ousted.
The first part was published last Tuesday. The last part will run next Tuesday.