The South China Sea and Philippine National Interest and Security

By Roland Simbulan

The ideal strategic goal is for the Philippines to enjoy the friendship of the US, Japan and China and not be a pawn in their inevitable conflicts – such as how the South China Sea dispute is being used as the US’ disguised pivot in Asia.


Like China, we are an Asian country, which is rich in natural resources. But compared to China we are just a small country, and an archipelagic country endowed with rich resources, being the object of big powers fighting each other in order to gain control of our land and its natural wealth. We have been under the Spanish empire as a colony for almost four centuries. The Dutch, and the British wanted to oust the Spaniards and incorporate us in their own empires. Then came the Americans who offered to help our Revolutionary fathers in freeing us from the Spanish yoke, only to betray the proffered “friendship”, fought our Revolutionary Army for Independence, and annexed us to the emerging American Empire. General Gregorio del Pilar, in whose honour Fort del Pilar, home of the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City was named, fought and died fighting the new American colonialists, perhaps the first US Visiting Forces in this part of the world. The first US “visiting forces”– 126,000 US troops according to American historians – invaded and defeated our Army of the First Republic of the Philippines led by General Emilio Aguinaldo.

Today, we are still the “bone of contention” of Big Powers, such as the United States and Japan including China, an emerging world power challenging US hegemony in this part of the world.

There are many dimensions to the South China Sea issue, but again the most important dimension to understand is to see it first of all through the security prism of the various stakeholder countries. For the US, the Philippines and Japan, altering the US-dominated status quo in the South China Sea threatens their conservative perception of “national security”. For China, NOT altering the status quo will potentially threaten China’s security in terms of its trading routes and key arteries for its supplies of energy and raw materials, as these will always be at the mercy of the ballistic submarines of the US Navy.

For the long future, there can only be more competition for resources and the question is whether it can be kept peaceful. We know that the great powers of the past achieved their aims through direct colonialism, wars of conquest, and inter-imperialist wars. China has propounded “peaceful development”, or “peaceful rise”, and “new type of great-power relationship” – to use their words precisely because, subjectively, it wants to avoid the old pattern of great-power conflicts and wars. To this day, unlike US and NATO, China’s diplomacy has tended to avoid overseas military conflicts or military intervention in other countries, and engages mostly in economic competition, using its accumulated financial clout to successfully win its bids for mining concessions in Afghanistan, or oil contracts in Iraq, for example. China’s leaders are certainly aware of the costly lessons of colonialism and wars, of which China itself is a victim. Hopefully, China can exercise more effective leadership so that its army of corporations and entrepreneurs expanding overseas will be guided by best practices (though there have been complaints in Africa as well as in the Philippines, as in the tainted NBN-ZTE contract during the former Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration).


China’s dependence on economic competition and not on military muscle is good for peaceful global competition.

Overall, the entry of China into the global market for resources is good for the resources-owning countries. China’s dependence on economic competition and not on military muscle is good for peaceful global competition. Whether other great-powers will allow China to rise peacefully or to control a greater share of the world’s resources, is something China alone cannot answer. The laws of international politics exist, and China itself will continue to build its national defence to redress the military imbalance with other powers and protect its economic lifelines when the need arises. That China itself was long a victim of Western imperialism and never, even at the height of its power in the past, engaged in territorial conquest beyond its historical domain, seems to provide a basis for optimism, but we can never really tell, because any government or party can change its colour. The lesson of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, bears this out.


China’s Interest in the South China Sea

The South China Sea has oil and other resources, which are certainly important, but even more important is that it is a strategic zone of defence for China. China’s military planners will not lightly give it up. By and large, China is maintaining the status quo. They have the superior force to take over the disputed islets if they want to, while in the case of Scarborough Shoal, they probably believe we were the disruptive “revisionist” force with our first use of a military vessel to intimidate their fishermen. But they will maintain their sovereignty claims because they are important legal and political grounds for opposing the use of the sea lanes “within their jurisdiction” (within their Exclusive Economic Zone) for military threats against China. They support freedom of navigation but I think they want a say on military passage through their “claimed” seas – the Hainan spy plane incident and subsequent skirmishes with US Navy ships approaching sensitive Chinese areas need to be reviewed.

China’s strategy of handling disputes with the Philippines will be a function of its overall strategy of dealing with the United States. China is already suspicious that the disputes with the Philippines have heated up simultaneous with the US pivot in Asia. But in handling the Philippines, China will strike a balance between not unnecessarily provoking the US, but also trying to send a firm message to the US. This reminds me of the example of the Netherlands’ sale of a submarine to Taiwan, which led China to severing of diplomatic relations with the Netherlands – I think relations were downgraded because of this. But a more massive US arms sale to Taiwan did not provoke a similar retaliation. The point here is that China is capable of “teaching a lesson” to a lesser power as a way of transmitting their message to the master, the US, without provoking the US, that it might be in our interest to avoid being in a position of such a “lesser power.”


Engaging China on our Territorial and Maritime Disputes

There is increasing perception in the Philippines that China’s unilateral claim in South East Asia through its 9 dash line covering the Spratlys, Baja de Masinloc, Ayungin, and reclamation activities which has now been rejected by the UNCLOS Hague Arbitration Tribunal are all manifestations of China’s big power aggression. Some say it is establishing its own hegemonic “sphere of influence” especially among its immediate neighbours in South East Asia. Provocation breeds counter provocation. There is the US Asia Pivot, and Japan is also reacting because its major trade routes for its vital imports such as oil and gas are on the Sea Lanes in the South China Sea. China is flexing its muscles through what is perceived as aggressive behaviour in the South East Asian waters and in the Pacific, which may be a prelude to future confrontation and conflicts.

The South China Sea being, above all, a security issue, China will react to Philippine actuations according to whether they threaten or enhance its security. China had increasing perception that the Philippines is actively aligned with the US and Japan to confront China militarily, enhanced by the US’ Asian pivot.


Foreign Relations and our National Interest

Now, where should we stand in these big-power quarrels? We must, in accordance to our 1987 Constitution, defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity from all big powers seeking hegemony and control over the West Philippine Sea (US, China and Japan). We have the following options:

Being a junior partner/follower of one of the competing powers will make our country a possible target of attack in a future conflict;

We can embark on an independent, patriotic posture. This means not allowing ourselves to be employed or used as a pawn in this big power struggle for resources in the region.

Our country is small compared to the US and China, but we also have strong points. China and the US are economically and militarily strong but they also have their weak points. Our strongest point is the God-given gift that we are strategically located in the region embraced on the western side by the South China Sea.

How then, should we take advantage and not squander our strong point? I argue that the best answer is an INDEPENDENT FOREIGN POLICY, a policy that swears friendship to all and enmity to none, a policy that gives primacy to our national interests independent of the conflict between Big Powers, a policy that above all, refocuses our effort on the most urgent issue, which is accelerated economic growth, on which all other sources of national strength depend. Our South East Asian neighbours – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, etc., though some of them also have territorial and maritime disputes with China, are focusing on economic growth and have good experience in this regard. But we can do better.

I know that the Chinese are trying to win us over to their side in their strategic competition, struggle and quarrel with the United States for a dominant position in the world. But, let us ask, why have we already surrendered our sovereignty to the other dominant big power, which supplies and arms us with already obsolete ships and aircraft – instead of state of the art for our external defence capability – to ostensibly “modernise” our armed forces?

But we must assert and assert our sovereign rights and our independence, not a witting or unwitting pawn of either Big Power. We can study well and learn from the experience of our smaller neighbour, Vietnam, in dealing both with China and the Soviet Union who were at odds with each other, to gain and to uphold their country’s independence and higher interests. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with whom China shares land borders, taught China and all big power bullies a lesson. That smallness in size of economic and military strength is not necessarily an invitation to be pushed around. We must develop and have our own capability to defend what is ours.

What President Duterte is really breaking is the unequal Philippine-US relations, it does not mean severing ties, but in fact, improving relations through mutuality and more respect with traditional allies.

The ideal strategic goal is for the Philippines to enjoy the friendship of the US, Japan and China and not be a pawn in their inevitable conflicts. If China can be made to realise that we mean genuine friendship, that our relations with the US, Japan or other powers are not directed against China, then the conditions will be improved for the eventual resolution of our disputes. For China’s leaders, the most important starting point is strategic trust and friendship. Once that is established, the nitty-gritty of legal, technical, and other detailed negotiations will eventually fall into place. Even China’s foreign policy scholars in their think tanks realise that if China continues to take a very hard line position with the Philippines on the South China Sea issue, it will only push the Philippines further to the United States which will complete the transformation of the Philippines into an American aircraft carrier directed against China under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

For especially with a “good neighbour” policy with China, we will have to deal with it in trade negotiations, economic negotiations, and in other bilateral relations that will lead to shared prosperity in the region. The potential for cooperation is still there now under the new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, and it should grow.

For the Philippines, bilateral talks will produce urgently needed economic boosts without giving up on sovereign or maritime claims that will no doubt take time to resolve (i.e. Vietnam-China took 30 years to sort out land border disputes, China-Russia took 40 years). Highly productive economic engagements will help bridge our domestic public opinions and build the mutual trust necessary for the final resolution of disputes.

For China, bilateral talks will enhance their security because negotiations will immediately lower the political temperature, reduce the level of threat, and maybe reduce the rationale for the US military pivot, the US military presence in the Philippines and even the EDCA which is easier to scrap because it is a mere Executive Agreement that was never ratified by the Philippine Senate.

The time for real diplomacy and direct negotiation has indeed arrived, with the recent high level state visit of Philippine President Duterte to China last Oct. 18-21, 2016. The Duterte administration is most qualified to handle the job in a manner that has prevented escalation of the dispute into war.

All signals point to early economic harvests for the Philippines as a result of the recent Duterte state visit. A bilateral commission can immediately negotiate/launch provisional joint development projects. Another bilateral commission can handle maritime disputes. All these are now possible.

The discussion of provisional arrangements of economic cooperation is good while more ticklish issues can be resolved later. Talks can start with concrete development projects in immediate time frames pending the final resolution of disputes and without prejudice to our sovereign rights or national interests.

The Hague ruling is both a challenge and an opportunity, but it will also test our maturity as a nation, and that if we handle the challenge well with a sense of urgency, we will achieve a situation where the Philippines enjoys good relations with China, while maintaining traditional and close friendship with the US, Japan and other partners. What President Duterte is really breaking is the unequal Philippine-US relations, it does not mean severing ties, but in fact, improving relations through mutuality and more respect with traditional allies. We will improve terms in agreements so that we really benefit and have more advantages and reciprocity. To break the pattern of what I call shameless negotiated subservience! This message is not just for the US, but for China as well.

Our vision for the Philippines is to become a respected independent nation in the region, politically and economically, but if we play by the old rules of alliances and confrontation, then the opportunity will be lost, and no benefit in terms of genuine security nor economic prosperity will be gained.


About the Author

simbulan-webRoland G. Simbulan is Professor in Development Studies and Public Management at the University of the Philippines. He is author of 8 books on Philippine-US security relations and Philippine foreig policy, and was Senior Political Consultant at the Philippine Senate. He is currently Vice Chair of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg), a public policy think tank in the Philippines.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.