“There is no ifs and buts. It is ours. But we have been acting along that legal truth and line. But we have to temper it with the times and the realities that we face today.” This statement in President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) last month reflects his policy toward Philippine claims in the South China Sea. That position has remained fairly consistent since coming to power in 2016. As he sets out to visit Beijing for the fifth time this month, maritime issues will once again be high on the agenda.

Conflict avoidance and protection of the country’s waters and marine resources constitute Duterte’s fundamental priorities in the South China Sea and he sees peaceful dialogue as the best way to achieve them. He has argued, “More and better results can be reached in the privacy of a conference room than in a squabble in public.” But high public mistrust of China and perceived weak handling of sea incidents have raised demands for transparency or oversight in the conduct of such talks. This should, however, be balanced by a respect for the very real sensitivities attached to diplomatic negotiations, especially over a decades-old territorial and maritime row.

Photo Source: South China Morning Post

A recent strategic dialogue between security sector experts and practitioners in the Philippines and Australia discussed prospects and sobering realities for cooperation and conflict-prevention amid great power rivalry. Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson’s keynote speech neatly summed up stark facts facing the Indo-Pacific: (a) geopolitical adjustments stemming from China’s rise, and (b) US policy mood that has shifted from engagement to strategic competition. 

The problem however lies in how we make sense of these realities. It has become popular for smaller powers to pursue “strategic autonomy”: non-aligned, cordial relations with both US and China pursued at the national level. However, I argue that strategic autonomy conceived as such is insufficient and leads to international bystanderism that makes the region susceptible to fallout from great power rivalry. Strategic autonomy may be better complemented by proactive brokerage by middle powers, clear articulation of common interests, and a degree of international coordination of national balancing strategies where possible. Discussions from the 2019 Philippines-Australia Dialogue are instructive in this regard.

Executive Summary

The heightened importance of maritime security issues, coupled with strategic competition between the major Indo-Pacific powers China and the United States, have turned the extensive maritime domain of Southeast Asia into an arena of great uncertainty. Here, various countries’ civilian and military maritime services navigate, operate, compete, and cooperate.

Complex politico-economic dynamics between the United States, the dominant power, and China, the emerging power, greatly affect the strategic positioning of other nations in the region. However, it is not only China’s thrust to gain operational superiority in the Pacific Ocean using its wide array of maritime agencies that is complicating the security environment; conditions such as the prevalence of transborder terrorist networks, and the geographical characteristic of the Indo-Pacific as the world’s most disaster-prone region, also play a role.

Partnership building offers the most pragmatic solution to the Philippines ever-increasing demand for resiliency in the cyber domain. It embraces cross-sectoral and cross-border collaboration in breaking down barriers to devise innovative cybersecurity approaches.

Photo Source: Pexels