Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute
Almost four years after the Philippines’ arbitral victory, the Duterte administration continues its overt inaction in asserting the country’s claims over the West Philippine Sea. Simultaneously, it has allowed China to maximize the opportunity created by the pandemic to further pursue its expansionist agenda by completing majority of its reclamation activities, conducting research expeditions to exploit resources, and deploying vessels beyond its ridiculous nine-dash line claim.
As the Duterte administration continues to downplay these acts of aggression, other states have consistently referred to the Philippines’ arbitral victory to denounce China’s expansive claims and to demand its compliance with the rule of law. Malacañang’s defeatist narrative of overly underplaying the physical capacity of small states ushers a myopic view of the much larger strategic situation. The real and often overlooked danger is China’s strategy of creating advantages along ambiguous lines and within gray areas to avoid retaliation by aggrieved parties.
Besides its clear circumvention of law and the massive deployment of military and paramilitary forces in the South China Sea, China has also infiltrated many countries’ domestic politics, civil society, and cyberspace through economic coercion, aggressive diplomatic concessions, information warfare, and propaganda.
The year 2016 was a turning point in China-Philippine relations because of two historical events—the arbitral victory, and Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential victory. While the former put the Philippines and regional interests in a better position, the latter development became a wild card that has resulted in populist, strongman, and polarizing leadership. Although Mr. Duterte’s electoral campaign included belligerent promises against China’s encroachments, his true pro-China policy unfolded once his presidency got going.
He started by shelving the arbitral victory and heavily aligning the Philippine economy with China. The President began collecting signed economic agreements and referred to China as more of a brother than a friend in October 2016. In 2017, with the rollout of the ambitious “Build, build, build” program, the President prioritized harnessing possible financial resources from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, resulting in an appeasement policy where he highlighted the importance of China’s economic concessions over the country’s territorial integrity in the West Philippine Sea. The most prominent Chinese investment would prove to be the Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos), which have produced a slew of domestic issues on labor, security, and governance. The soft stance of the Duterte administration on the Pogo phenomenon banks on the similarly false narrative that China’s gambling industry provides economic benefits to the Philippines.
Chinese information warfare, meanwhile, thrives directly via the deliberate shaping of narratives, and indirectly, through the influence operations of proxies to promote the Chinese narrative. The battle space is not just confined to the traditional thresholds of power; it gravitates as well to the social space to control and win over public opinion. The Philippines’ biggest advantage and strength as a small, democratic nation relies on building strategic alliances with like-minded states based on shared values and the vision of a rules-based international and regional order.
In line with this, the 2016 arbitral victory should forever remain relevant, since the rule of law exists to set all states on an equal footing. The South China Sea issue demands an “Asean minus X” approach that would limit participation in discussions to the directly affected Southeast Asia maritime nations, and avoid any power intimidation from China due to the minilateral nature of the coalition. From the Indo-Pacific angle, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Plus (Quad Plus), which includes key member states such as Japan, Australia, and India, serves as an equibalancing force to the military might of China.
With the Philippine government having “suspended” the termination proceedings of the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, the current patrols of US forces in disputed waters, the US-Japan joint exercises, and Asean’s more pointed position against China’s dubious historical sea claims, the condition is ripe to assert the Philippines’ rightful claims and create strategic opportunities to secure our national interests.
This article was originally published in Philippine Daily Inquirer. Image Source: Department of National Defense.