To protect the maritime commons

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

The United States used to enjoy a central role in ensuring geopolitical stability throughout much of Asia. But with the changing landscape in regional security, a shift has taken place, and China has risen as an emergent power gradually pushing the United States aside. This waning influence is made more uncertain with America’s lack of a definitive foreign policy for Asia except for its commitment under Japan’s Democratic Security Diamond (DSD).

Early last week, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies released an article that identifies the permanent facilities built by China in 2017. While less attention has been directed at China’s construction activities, this inattentiveness might only have allowed it to continue with its maritime activities. Hence the need to reexamine the strategic framework that would protect the maritime commons.

Last month in Manila, the four members of the DSD, or the “Quad” — the United States, Japan, Australia and India — met on the sidelines of the Asean Summit. While there was no formal agreement or explicit commitment, the meeting suggested the four countries’ commitment to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific.

In a special study published by ADR Institute, Renato de Castro cited the importance of a mechanism like the DSD. “As members of the DSD,” he wrote, “Japan and Australia have emphasized the relevance of the regional security architecture, using multilateral organizations as a means of upholding a stable and rules-based order in East Asia.” And since Japan and Australia have assisted the Philippines in building up its Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force, the latter can play an important role in preserving the status quo by maximizing the capacity-building efforts offered by the two countries, he said.

While there is no question that the DSD is positioned to safeguard the maritime commons, there is uncertainty on whether the strategic partnership among the four countries is meant to engage or hedge China. In fact, “to engage or to hedge

China” was one of the questions that was raised during the launch of the study.

While the DSD is at least indirectly aimed at engaging China, the economies of the four countries are well-intertwined with that of the rising giant. Thus, formalizing the Quad might not be in consonance with the national or trade interests of the four countries. In either case, the Philippines can very well benefit from the formation of the DSD. But it can only do so if the government has identified maritime security as one of its key priorities.

While the government has several domestic issues to address, it should not turn a blind eye on maritime security, which is as important. National security does not only comprise domestic security but also involves security from external forces or threats. While it is undeniable that domestic issues have influence to some degree and thus serve as basis of a foreign policy or strategy, any domestic issue should be addressed hand in hand with, and not at the cost of, international relations. As it stands, foreign policy, specifically in maritime security, appears to have taken a back seat.

The government should view the DSD as an opportunity to enhance its relations with these like-minded countries. The government can likewise utilize and maximize the capacity-building efforts of Japan and Australia by forging a common visiting forces agreement with them to enhance training of our armed forces, among others.

It goes without saying that the government, in its effort to establish rapprochement with China, should equally consider it as crucial to engage and maintain bilateral ties with other like-minded democracies within the DSD, such as Japan, Australia, the United States, and even India. But this does not preclude the opportunity to engage other states with similar interests in the maritime commons.

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