Dr. Renato de Castro, Stratbase ADRi Trustee
Prior to his departure for his official visit to Myanmar on March 19, 2017, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte betrayed his foreign policy scheme in the face of China’s expansion in the South China Sea to a group of journalists. When a journalist asked him about China’s reported plan to build an environmental monitoring station on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, President Duterte emphatically admitted that “he could not shop China from building on a disputed shoal near the Philippines west coast because according to him, “We can stop China from doing (these) things.” Mockingly, he turned the table on the journalists when he said “What do want me to do? Declare war against China? I can’t. We will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we (will be) destroyed as a nation.”
President Duterte offered a possible solution to the crisis: “Just keep it (the waters) open and do not interfere with our (Philippine) coast guard.” He also demised concerns about China’s activities near Benhan Rise despite National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s warnings of Chinese survey ships operating at the said maritime location that sometimes last for about a month. President Duterte is determined to appease China as it expands it control of the South China Sea. A policy of appeasement involves efforts by a leader of a smaller state to conciliate or “buy off an expansionist power by making unilateral diplomatic and strategic concessions.
Then President Aquino took a different approach as he actively challenged China’s expansion in the South China Sea despite its overwhelmingly economic and strategic capabilities. Former President Aquino III challenged China’s expansive maritime claim in the South China Sea by building up the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) territorial defense capabilities. Thus, the Aquino administration sank its teeth into challenging China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea as the latter directly encroaches into the country’s EEZ. A significant factor behind the Aquino Administration’s to challenge China’s expansion in the South China Sea dispute, despite its military inadequacies, is the country’s alliance with the U.S.
Harnessing America’s Alliances
A significant factor behind the Aquino Administration’s to challenge China’s expansion in the South China Sea dispute, despite its military inadequacies, is the country’s alliance with the U.S. The Aquino Administration was aware that no amount of financial resources would enable the Philippines to face an assertive China in the South China Sea. The build-up of the AFP’s territorial defense capabilities was designed for limited deterrence and asymmetric combat but not for naval warfare. This Aquino Administration military build-up merely complemented the deterrence provided by the U.S. forward deployment and bilateral alliances in East Asia. In the final analysis, the Aquino Administration’s policy of challenging China’s expansion in the South China Sea was predicated upon the U.S.’s assertion of its position as the dominant naval power in the Pacific.
The Philippine close security ties with the U.S. enabled it to cooperate with other American allies in East Asia such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The Philippines was able to tapped Japan in providing technical and material assistance to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). Likewise, the Philippine government was able to purchase 12 F/A Golden Eagles fighter planes from South Korea. The Philippines also signed and ratified a Status of Forces Agreement with the Australian Defense Force to enhance security cooperation that includes the Coast Watch South project and the joint Maritime Training Activity Lumbas. By establishing security partnerships with the U.S. Japan, South Korea, and Australia, the Aquino Administration harnessed the military know-how and resources of these allies against a pressing strategic concern in maritime Southeast Asia—China’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea.
Unravelling the Aquino Administration’s Alliance Policy
President Duterte is currently undoing the Aquino Administration’s balancing policy on China by relying on the country’s alliance with the U.S. and its allies. His goals are to foster closer economic and diplomatic relations with China while strategically separating the Philippines from the U.S. He announced that the Philippine Navy (PN) would no longer join the U.S. Navy in patrolling the South China Sea to avoid upsetting Beijing. He also wanted U.S. Special Operation Forces (SOF) supporting the Philippine Army (PA) counter-terrorism missions in Mindanao to withdraw from the island. He ordered the reduction in the numbers of joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises from 28 to about 13. He also redirected the focus of these military exercises from territorial defense and maritime security to non-traditional security concerns such as Humanitarian Assistance and Risk Reduction (HADR), cybersecurity, anti-terrorism, and anti-narcotics operations. Most significantly, he cancelled the holding of joint naval exercises such as Philippine-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHILBEX) and Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT).
In December 2016, Defense Secretary Deflin Lorenzana announced that it is unlikely that the Philippines would allow the U.S. military to use the Philippines as a base for carrying out freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. Later, President Duterte responded to reports that China is installing weapons on islands deep inside the Philippines’ EEZ by signifying that he would not protest these Chinese actions. President Duterte’s position was supported by then Foreign Secretary Yasay when he admitted that the Philippines is helpless in stopping China’s maritime expansion and militarization activities on the disputed island in the South China Sea. President Duterte’s subsequent pronouncements and actions to appease China have consequently triggered a crisis in the Philippine-U.S. alliance.
Reaping the Fruits of Appeasement
President Duterte’s pronouncement that he would not stop China from building on a disputed shoal was based on two possible calculations. Firstly, after alienating and antagonizing the Philippines’ only strategic ally, the country has no choice but to accept the inevitable—China’s building up of an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal that s less than 200 nautical miles from the coast of the main Philippine island of Luzon. Secondly, appeasing China has its rewards in the form of US$ 6 billion dollars in deals including agreement for agricultural exports to China, and loans for infrastructure projects such as railways and hydroelectric dams.
Last week, Chinese 3rd Vice Premier Wang Yang visited Davao City and witnessed the exchanged of letters between Philippine and Chinese officials on the feasibility studies on infrastructure projects China will be financing. Mr. Wang visited portions of the proposed Davao Coastline and Portland Development Project. He was also briefed on the Davao City Expressway and the Mindanao Railway. He also brought with him unspecified amount of donation to the victims of the Surigao earthquake. Not surprisingly, despite warnings from about the long-term strategic implications of China’s reported plan to construct an environmental monitoring station on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, President Duterte was alarmingly resigned to possible Chinese building activities in the South China Sea since the price is right!