Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meets US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the presidential palace in Manila on August 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

On April 10, three days after the meeting in Florida between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his order to the military to reinforce the defense of islands in the South China Sea controlled by Manila was to maintain the geopolitical balance, and assured China that no “offensive weapons” would be placed there.

Duterte said the Philippines wanted peace and friendship with China but Manila needed to bolster its territory in the South China Sea because “everybody’s grabbing” islands in the Spratly archipelago. But there are caveats in the ever-changing security landscape.

Obviously, the Philippines can’t match China’s military power. Duterte might opt for other actions to defend the country’s sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal (known in the Philippines as Panatag Shoal) and fulfill his duty.

Second, Antonio Carpio, a senior associate justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, suggested the filing of a formal protest over China’s incursions in Panatag Shoal. Let us remember that this is what the Vietnamese did recently when China sent cruise tours to the disputed Paracels but to no avail. Formal protests from the United States, the Philippines, and others have not worked either.

China continues to rock the boat of security in Southeast Asia. This is only going to be resolved if a formal protest is tried in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which would cost the Philippines a lot instead of focusing on its internal security operations against such groups as Abu Sayyaf, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Ansar Khalifa Philippines, the New People’s Army and the like.

Third, the government could send the Philippine Navy to patrol the shoal. However, the sad reality is that navy patrols cannot do anything but report. If it came to an actual battle, its vessels would not be up to the job.

Fourth, if the Chinese were to attack naval ships, Manila might invoke the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty, which covers any armed attack on Philippine Navy vessels operating in the South China Sea. It is possible that this would solve the problem, but not likely. The United States moves according to its own geopolitical interests, not the Philippines’. If the Americans decided not to counterattack, which is very probable, they could make a lot of excuses, especially saying it might cause World War III.

The fact is, the United States is not ready for a military confrontation with China, and China knows this, so it moves at will. The world used to tremble at the sound of America’s voice. But it has allowed too many of the world’s spoiled brats to get away with mischief so often that no one respects that booming voice any longer.

Last, Manila might ask Washington to declare the shoal as part of Philippine territory and accept the standing American offer to hold joint patrols in the South China Sea for that purpose. Again, such declarations and patrols would have no effect on Chinese moves. If China can defy US warships in the Spratlys, it can certainly handle a few puny joint patrols.

The only way the Philippines can deal with China is by strengthening all of its alliances, not just its ties with the US. The country has strong economic ties with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and others.

I remember a forum that I attended where Jose “Chito” Santa Romana, a veteran Filipino journalist who has lived and worked in China for more than three decades and is the current ambassador to Beijing, saw the election of President Duterte and his desire to open bilateral talks and improve relations with China as an opportunity for a new chapter in bilateral ties. But he considered major factors that would have an impact on this effort, such as the legal victory attained by the Philippines in its arbitration case against China and the Chinese leadership’s attitude of negating the arbitral tribunal’s ruling.

He believes both sides will need a significant degree of creativity, flexibility, and pragmatism to find a way forward. He thinks the key challenge for both sides is to acknowledge and manage their differences as they explore areas of functional cooperation so they can co-exist peacefully as neighboring countries.

To be fair to China, Duterte puts the blame for current tensions in the South China Sea squarely on the United States, for not intervening to stop China building and arming artificial islands in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Also, if the US and China fight each other, the Philippines will be affected.

The Philippines has extended its hand of friendship to the US government. But there is a catch. US leadership in the region might be “traded off” if China gives concessions to Trump on trade, but Manila is also worried about being forced to take sides if ties between Beijing  and Washington worsen.

However, with a little aggressiveness, the Philippines could refuse to  engage in any military buildup and oppose any attempt to deploy weapons on the islands it controls. This is what is called in the Philippines the “defensive realist approach”.

It also wrong to say that the solution is to sleep with the “enemy”, that is, engage in a mining partnership with China. The Philippines as the landowner must get a share, while China as the capitalist explores and extracts. China will try to give the Philippines the tail of the fish, but Manila can negotiate. In other words, give the Chinese permission to mine only if they respect Philippine territory and give the Filipinos their share. China might just agree so as to avoid a future unpredictable situation.

Let’s face it, the sustainable development of the Philippines does not lie in its pulling itself by its own bootstraps, but by engaging geopolitically and geo-economically its larger periphery controlled by economic and political superpowers in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, especially China and United States. The fact is Southeast Asian intra-regional trade is much smaller than its interregional trade and its security relies mostly on a modus vivendi with the superpowers.

While there is a very limited expectation of specific outcomes from the Trump-Xi summit in Florida, it will shape the discourse of the emerging regional trade and security architecture in Asia. We are now at the point of no return; everything is either a low- or high-stakes gamble in the political arena.

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Jumel G. Estrañero

Jumel Gabilan Estrañero is a defense analyst/researcher in the Philippine government while teaching political science, geopolitics, international negotiation, multilateral diplomacy, political economy and geography, international trade, practice and policies, and other social sciences. His articles have appeared and quoted in Asia Maritime Reviews, The Nation (Bangkok, Thailand), Southeast Asian Times, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Times, and Malaya Business Insights.

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