A grand strategy for the next president: A case for limited balancing toward China

Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute

The Ayungin Shoal incident last month, and the breakdown in the Philippine-China rapprochement marked by President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s open criticism of the China Coast Guard’s (CCG) harassment of the Philippine Navy’s (PN) supply boats near the BRP Sierra Madre during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-China summit in late November in general, is instructive of the need to formulate a Philippine grand strategy. A grand strategy consists of a set of ideas for using a nation’s resources to achieve its interests over the long run. The term “grand” signifies the large-scale nature of the strategic undertaking in terms of time (long-term, ideally measured in decades), stakes (the interests concerned are the large, important, and most enduring and vital ones), and comprehensiveness (a strategy that provides a blueprint or guiding logic for nation’s policies across many areas). It is often defined in terms of national security, power, and wealth, but the ends point to valued public goods such as national honor, stability, territorial integrity, and freedom from fear and coercion.

A president chooses or designs a grand strategy on deep-seated beliefs on how the country should deal with the international challenges or opportunities it faces at a given point in history. National leaders should view grand strategy as a means to maintain and or strengthen their hold on executive power. The National Security Strategy, or NSS, contains a country’s grand strategy. It represents a state’s plan for the coordinated use of all the instruments of national power — from diplomacy to the military capability — to pursue the objectives that defend and advance the national interests.

The major security conundrum that has confronted the Philippines since the second decade of the 21st century is China’s expansion into the West Philippine Sea, which jurisdictionally comprises the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In March 2010, China declared the South China Sea as one of its “core interests,” indicating its determination to assert its rights over the disputed waters. Top-level Chinese officials have abandoned their moderate public posture on the maritime dispute, and have become increasingly forceful and nationalistic. They have constantly harped on China’s emergent status, the decline of the US, and their unwavering claim of sovereignty over the East China and South China Seas. They picture their country as a reactive and defensive victim of increasing maritime encroachments by two smaller Southeast Asian powers— Vietnam and the Philippines — and the unwarranted meddling of the US. By 2011, China’s militant nationalism, growing naval prowess, and unilateral actions were overtly directed against a militarily-weak Southeast Asian country — the Philippines.

Since 2011, the Philippines has adopted three types of strategy— balancing, appeasement, and limited hard balancing — against China’s maritime expansion in the West Philippine Sea. The late President Benigno Aquino III challenged China’s expansive maritime claim in the South China Sea. He applied a balancing strategy towards China by shifting the Philippine Armed Forces’ (AFP) focus from domestic security to territorial defense, bolstering closer Philippine-US security relations; acquiring American military equipment; seeking from Washington an explicit security guarantee under the 1951 MDT; and promoting a strategic partnership with Japan.

Mr. Duterte, however, unraveled the late President Aquino’s agenda of balancing China’s expansive claim in the South China Sea. He distanced his country from its long-standing treaty ally and gravitated toward China which is determined to reconfigure the global commons in the East Asia. He thought that an appeasement policy on China was worth pursuing because it would make the country a beneficiary of the latter’s emergence as a global economic power.

The Duterte Administration, however, was confronted by China’s failure to deliver the promised loans and direct investments to finance the Philippine government’s Build, Build, Build program. While the AFP observed increasing Chinese naval presence and assertiveness near the artificial islands, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) persistently constructed more structures in the South China Sea. This forced this administration to reluctantly embrace a policy of limited hard balancing. This policy requires accepting that China is a major economic and military power in the region and that the Philippines must maintain healthy economic and diplomatic relations with this emergent power; but the Philippines must also seek to mitigate any adverse externalities of this geopolitical reality, i.e., assertiveness, coercive behavior, and territorial expansion, by developing credible military capabilities and harnessing countervailing coalitions of other major powers designed to thwart or impede specific Chinese policies.

This policy was a result of the defense, military, and foreign affairs establishments questioning Mr. Duterte’s appeasement policy. It was also a result of this administration’s belated realization that it needs an impromptu strategy aimed at constraining China’s revisionist agenda in the South China Sea. This, in turn, is generating an impasse within the Duterte Administration as it is caught in a bind on whether it will continue its appeasement policy or adopt a policy of limited balancing against China’s maritime expansionist claim of the West Philippine Sea in the last few months of its six-year term.

A major challenge for the 17th Philippine president is to transform the current administration’s unplanned and makeshift strategy of limited hard balancing into a well-thought, and comprehensive grand strategy, through a formal NSS, that will guide the Philippines in addressing China’s expansion into the country’s maritime domain in the next six years.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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