Strategic partnerships in ‘Indo-Pacific’

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Since the arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016, China has continued its military buildup in the South China Sea. In its latest report, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said “permanent facilities such as buildings ranging from underground storage areas and administrative buildings to large radar and sensor arrays, accounting for about 72 acres or 290,000 square meters, have been completed or began work since the start of the year.”

While Beijing has reached out to the Philippines and other states in Southeast Asia, an “intelligence hub” or “communications center” in the disputed Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef was completed last year. Kagitingan is the smallest of China’s big three artificial islands in the Spratlys.

Apparently, the Philippines cannot merely rely on “good faith” from China in the years to come. We must do what we can to have our allies and regional partners engaged in our and Asean’s efforts to protect and secure our shared maritime domain.

Our goal then should be to “strengthen linkages in maritime cooperation to further promote mutual trust and confidence.” In surveys conducted by the Social Weather Stations, for instance, Filipinos have “very good” net trust for countries such as the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia. Perhaps the government can consider the people’s sentiments when choosing allies and partners.

The South China Sea has one of the world’s most diverse marine biosystems, which is vital to the livelihood of millions of people associated with fisheries and a potential oil resource. A study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ China Power project estimated that some $3.37 trillion worth of trade passed through the disputed waterways in 2016 alone.

Thus, any maritime dispute undermines regional security not only for claimants but also for global maritime players and nonclaimant states.

Threats to maritime security are not limited to armed attacks or terrorist activities. The intentional and unlawful damage to the marine environment also poses serious threats to the coastal states.

In 2016, our Institute published a special study titled “Converging on the Fisheries in the South China Sea,” which opened the eyes of many to rising environmental concerns in the area. Such concerns might be the only common ground among states, claimant or not. More than its geopolitical value then, the South China Sea and its immense biodiversity are issues about which states ought to be concerned.

Despite the territorial and maritime disputes, we can expect coastal states to work together to conserve and protect the biodiversity and ecosystems of the South China Sea.

Beyond the disputes, longtime allies of the Philippines such as the United States, Australia and Japan have shifted their focus on the “Indo-Pacific.” As opposed to addressing maritime issues in the South China Sea in isolation, this approach sees countries working to bring about maritime security in the broader “Indo-Pacific” and ensuring that sea lanes remain open.

The Philippines should look beyond Asean and continue to engage external powers in pursuit of maritime security, continued peace, and inclusive prosperity.

We can play a significant role in attaining maritime security by maximizing the potential benefits of cooperation among the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Of course, such cooperation should extend beyond the four countries, which in turn should collaborate with other democracies that adhere to rule-based order and interest in maintaining the status quo.

This mutual cooperation will optimize credible deterrence to any security threat in the South China Sea and the broader Indo Pacific. The preservation of the global commons is of critical importance and is more feasible to implement at this time.

While the traditional diplomatic approach may not prove to be effective in building strategic partnerships that would address maritime disputes in the South China Sea — or at least not yet — a discussion purely based on management of the environment could be a good card to play in order to bring together both democracies and nondemocracies. This may also be a good start for building and strengthening collaborative, strategic partnerships with new allies and partners.

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