The year 2018 witnessed an intensification of the geopolitical rivalry in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, particularly between the United States (US) and China. In January 2018, the Pentagon released the summary of the classified National Defense Strategy (NDS). Along with Russia, the NDS identified China as one of the “revisionist powers.” Overall, the NDS provides that Beijing’s objective is to “reorder the Indo-Pacific region to [its] advantage,” as well as the “displacement of the [US] to achieve global preeminence in the future.” Thus far, China appears to be taking geopolitical steps to achieve these strategic objectives.
Despite an international ruling that largely debunked China’s maritime claims, Beijing continued with beefing up its artificial islands in the South China Sea (SCS). This year alone, China installed, among others, anti-ship cruise missiles and surface to-air missile systems, as well as jamming equipment. In May 2018, China landed bombers in the Paracels, the range of which includes practically the entire Philippines. Washington responded by conducting more freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the region. In September 2018, the US and China were nearly in a literal collision when the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur, conducting a FONOP, was approached by a PRC Luyang destroyer and “conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings for [USS Decatur] to depart the area.” The US further added that the PRC destroyer “approached within 45 yards of [USS Decatur’s] bow, after which [USS Decatur] maneuvered to prevent a collision.” On the economic front, Washington and Beijing are engulfed in a trade war.
Geographically, the Philippines finds itself in between these two competing powers. In July of this year, the Philippines publicly released its own National Security Strategy (NSS). While the Philippines continues to grapple with internal security challenges, the NSS identifies the rivalry of major powers is “the most important long-term strategic concern” of the region. Cognizant of the strategic environment and the Philippines’ limited geopolitical capacity, it may be asked: how does the NSS seek to respond to impact of major power rivalry? Also, how can Manila further protect its national security interests in an increasingly complex international milieu?
As part of its efforts to address these myriad of geopolitical concerns, the NSS provides that the Philippines shall promote “amity and cooperation with all nations.” Interestingly, General Hermogenes Esperon Jr. (Ret), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s National Security Adviser, openly acknowledged that Manila is pursuing a “hedging” approach in its foreign relations. While not explicitly mentioned in the NSS, elements of this hedging approach appear to be reflected in the strategy document in the context major power competition.
First, the NSS stresses the importance of multilateral engagement of the Philippines with the major powers of the region, particularly through ASEAN-led mechanisms. Indeed, the strategy documents emphasizes that “ASEAN centrality is important as it complements other efforts in managing the impact of geopolitical rivalry among the great powers.” This is related to the concept of “omni-enmeshment.”
Second, sustain Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) modernization program (AFPMP), and strengthen alliance and partnerships. Continuing the AFPMP of the previous government, the Duterte administration approved of purchasing two squadrons of new multi-role fighters, frigates, corvettes, among others. It was also reported that Manila will purchase submarines. In addition, the Philippines also began the repair of its runway in Thitu Island, as well as the construction of light houses in its occupied features. Moreover, a Philippine Air Force (PAF) base will be built in Palawan, which is near the Spratlys.
Noting that America is the world’s “only superpower” and the Philippines’ “sole defense treaty ally,” the NSS emphasizes that US security presence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region is a “stabilizing force.” Through its alliance relationship with Manila, Washington has also supported the AFPMP. Aside from providing the AFP with various intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance equipment, It was also announced that Washington will transfer four OV-10 Bronco light attack planes to the PAF. In addition, the allies agreed to conduct 281 security cooperation activities for 2019, an increase over 2018.
Manila is also boosting security cooperation with other partners. In 2018, Japan has completed the turnover of all of the ten multi-role response vessels (MRRVs) to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). Participating in the Philippines-US KAMANDAG exercises, Japan also donated military training aircraft to the Philippine Navy (PN), as well as spare parts and maintenance equipment to the Philippine Air Force (PAF). With Viet Nam, the Philippines developed confidence-building measures, particularly the military interaction in Southwest Cay. The NSS identifies Australia, along with other states like India, South Korea, and Russia, as “crucial in the peace, stability, and prosperity of the broader Indo-Asia-Pacific region.” Manila’s partnership with Canberra, with which it has a Visiting Forces Agreement, is crucial as both are part of the US-led hub-and-spokes system of bilateral alliances in the region.
Third, the NSS alludes to a careful management of relations with China, particularly with respect to the SCS. While it reaffirms Manila’s victory in the <Philippines v China case, the document underscores the need for “prudence” in handling the “complex and delicate” issue and “will carefully calibrate its diplomatic moves to avert the costly consequences of any potential outbreak of armed confrontations” in the SCS. Following a carefully worded response to the ruling’s outcome, the Duterte government moved towards the establishment of bilateral platforms to manage the dispute with China, such as the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the SCS and the Joint Coast Guard Committee. The Philippines has also supported ASEAN initiatives in managing the SCS dispute, including the negotiation of a Code of Conduct (COC).
During the November 2018 state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Philippines, Manila and Beijing witnessed an exchange of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on oil and gas development. While observers called the memorandum as essentially an “agreement to negotiate,” Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio noted that the document may serve as a “formula for finally settling the maritime dispute” as it “calls for cooperation in oil and gas activities through the vehicle of Philippine service contracts.”
Today’s regional security environment, which is largely underpinned by the dynamics of the US-China rivalry, may sometimes imply that other states may be forced to choose sides. For relatively small states with limited geopolitical options, hedging appears to be a more pragmatic course of action. Not an easy task, hedging demands strategic foresight and tenacity in order to have flexibility in the milieu of major power rivalry. In furtherance of promoting its NSS, Manila may consider the following options.
First, caution, prudence, and tact are among the principles in the consideration for the issuance of public statements. To note, pronouncements from the top leadership, particularly those with respect to foreign relations, are largely viewed by the public and the international community as policy statements. As such, there must be discipline in communications to avoid policy misperception and unintended consequences.
Second, the Philippines must play its cards right in international negotiations. While the MOU on oil and gas development provides the framework and principles for negotiation, the intricate details will be handled by the established working mechanisms. As such, operationalization of the MOU will depend on future diplomatic negotiations. At the regional level, it must be noted that in the Single Draft SCS COC Negotiating Text, Beijing proposed that China and ASEAN should “not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.” Should this provision be included in the final COC, China could effectively veto military exercises of ASEAN states with other powers such as the US. As Australia’s ambassador to Manila pointed out, the COC “should not prejudice the interests of third parties or the rights of all states under international law.” Manila should work with fellow ASEAN members to remove this and other objectionable provisions from the final COC.
Third, there is a strategic imperative to prudently manage relations with both the US and China. While there are increasing signs that Philippines-US relations have improved, such as the return of the Balangiga Bells, the implementation of the EDCA must be fast-tracked. Although the first major project under EDCA was initiated at Basa Air Base in April 2018, broader implementation of the pact appears to have been delayed. As other observers have argued, further postponements—particularly at Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan—means that Washington may not proceed faster in strengthening security cooperation with Manila in the SCS. At the same time, the Philippines must also be cognizant that the US treaty commitments are not unequivocal partly because Washington does not have a significant military presence in the country. Without such clear-cut commitment backed by Washington’s military prowess, as well as a strong armed forces on the part of Manila, the Philippines cannot, by itself, challenge maritime expansionism in the SCS. Hence, carefully managing tensions with Beijing through dialogue, while safeguarding Manila’s interests, is of importance to Philippine diplomacy. This is consistent with a Hobbesian view of the international system in which, according to geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan, there is “no Leviathan to punish the Unjust” and international law is “secondary to geopolitical realities.”
Mico A. Galang is a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NDCP.