Fourth in a series about national concerns. Supplementary article on territorial frictions
One crucial question on addressing South China (West Philippine) Sea territorial frictions was not dealt with for lack of space in last week’s two-part article on the topic: How can the Philippines defend itself against Chinese encroachment without American backing, as we have had to do since the People’s Liberation Army seized Mischief Reef in 1995?
The United States has never given military support to the Philippines in territorial disputes, even when China seized Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. And when visiting President Barack Obama was asked twice by the Malacañang Press Corps what the US would do if tensions with China turned violent, he was evasive and merely insisted that territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully.
In sum, despite the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement increasing rotations of American forces in the archipelago and granting them access to Philippine bases, EDCA does not change Washington’s longstanding policy not to take sides in territorial disputes or use its forces to defend Philippine claims.
That hands-off policy contrasts with America’s staunch commitment to defend Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China calls Diaoyutai and also claims. When Beijing declared an air defense identification zone over the disputed territory in November 2013, two US B-52 bombers challenged the ADIZ.
And during his Tokyo stop before Kuala Lumpur and Manila last year, President Obama echoed the 2012 Webb Amendment of the US Senate, which “acknowledges the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands” and pledges to defend it.
So how can the Philippines defend its territorial claims and economic rights, especially the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) 200 nautical miles from our archipelagic baselines, and the extended continental shelf (ECS) 320 nm out? Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the country has exclusive rights to exploit resources in EEZ waters and the ECS seabed.
Defending the zone
Before talking guns and bullets, some diplomatic and geopolitical issues should be sorted out, so it’s clear what kind of conflict the country needs to prepare for.
First, every effort must be made to settle things peacefully, including bilateral negotiations and cooperative undertakings. Even Beijing doesn’t want a war, given its grave damage to trade, capital flows, and regional stability. And while it may sound patriotic to shed blood for islets hundreds of miles out at sea, the death and distress that war could visit on the country should give pause to all who really care about the nation.
Second, while the alliance with the United States remains robust, it does not commit American forces to support our territorial claims in the South China (West Philippine) Sea. So the Philippines must build up defense capabilities to assert those claims, particularly economic rights over EEZ waters and the ECS seabed. We’re on our own in disputes over the Spratlys, and must build up our forces accordingly.
So rather than a massive invasion of the Philippines, which is highly unlikely and would almost surely bring in allied forces, what the country needs to do is to gear up to challenges in surrounding waters, where the aim is to deter intrusions and, if necessary, beat back and take out threats.
Anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) is the term used by The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a Washington-based security think tank, in a 2012 paper, “The Geostrategic Return of the Philippines,” which argued that “Neutralizing the Philippines appears to be a critical part of China’s strategy” in enhancing regional clout:
“The United States needs to help the Philippines develop its own set of ‘anti-access/area denial’ capabilities to counter China’s growing power projection capabilities. Emphasis should be on providing defensive systems like maritime surveillance aircraft, coastal anti-ship defenses, and air defense systems.”
Rockets, fighters and subs
So far, military upgrading initiatives include coastal vessels and aircraft, yet these assets, while enhancing surveillance and enforcement, pose no credible deterrence to Chinese sea and air forces, not at all the the anti-access/area denial capabilities prescribed by CSBA. For A2/AD, the Philippines needs strong anti-ship and air defense systems to make hostile vessels and aircraft wary of intruding into Philippine territory.
Congressman and former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, has argued for one such system: the BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missile jointly produced by Russia and India. With a range of more than 300 km, the projectile can cover the country’s EEZ. Mounted three on a truck, the mobile system would be hard to locate and take out.
Golez urges a battery of 200 missiles able to move where there are intruders. The estimated cost of P30 billion is well within amounts proposed for armed forces modernization (the used jets from South Korea cost P25 billion, yet they are no deterrent like the BrahMos). And since the rockets would guard offshore oil and gas deposits, their acquisition could be considered an energy-related expense which can be covered by Malampaya gas royalties, now well over P150 billion.
Along with the BrahMos, Vietnam is acquiring submarines, another effective A2/AD weapon. Being hard to find, subs can deter intruders in a vast expanse of sea well in excess of their actual presence. Also on Hanoi’s arsenal and defense shopping list are Russian Sukhoi fighter jets, which could deter enemy aircraft threatening frigates and patrol boats guarding the EEZ and challenging intruder vessels.
These A2/AD capabilities should also be considered by the Philippines. They escalate the risk of intrusion and invasion, even for a superpower aggressor. With them, the Philippines would enjoy far greater respect from rival claimants in the South China Sea. And from allies, too, for we would no longer be so beholden and helpless in seeking help and protection. Only then can we truly have enhanced defense cooperation.