Security Dilemma in South China Sea: China, US and the choices for Philippines

Written by Sumantra Maitra.

As Philippines elections approach in May, the primary foreign policy choice facing the country is how to manage the rise of China, and the growing militarization of the South China Sea. This comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, as Chinese coast guard vessels took over a portion of the Spratleys chasing away Vietnamese and Philippines fishermen, before heading back as a reminder of Chinese navy’s choke hold. That is just one in a series of events that in the last few months that dramatically increased the tension in the historically volatile and fluid region. At the time of writing this piece, USS John Stennis carrier group escorted by five other warships including two destroyers are heading to South China sea as a show of force “Freedom of Navigation” (FONOP) operation. The navies of United States and India are planning joint patrols in the South China Sea, as well as there are talks of reviving the long dormant Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and US, as three of the four above mentioned nations are planning a series of naval exercises that is sure to cheese off China.

It is difficult to summarize within the size and scope of this blog post the policy details of such a complicated region, but to put it simply, South China Sea is facing an acute case of “Security dilemma”. A security dilemma is a spiral process, where one rising hegemon happens to militarize which results in smaller states feeling threatened. The smaller threats then either tend to bandwagon with the rising hegemon, or try and balance by bringing in other Great powers to act as offshore balancers, which then results in the rising hegemon militarizing even more, and the resultant spiral. History is littered with examples of security dilemma; from the city states of Greece feeling threatened by Sparta bringing in Athens, resulting in the Peloponnesian war, to Rome and Carthage, to the Napoleonic wars, and the World wars, to the recent Russian interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria to name a few.

A security dilemma more often than not revolves around a geopolitically and economically important sea route. From Aegean to Mediterranean, English Channel to Kuril Islands to South Pacific, wars between Great powers involved in a Security Dilemma always started over control of an important sea route. The reason is wedded to the rimland thesis of controlling sea by naval forces. Traditional Mahanian naval dominance doctrines talk about the control of high seas, but that concept was turned on its head by Nicholas Spykman who states that it is the control of the shallow, marginal or “inner” seas which gives a regional power or an offshore balancer the control of the entire region and to provide with a naval supremacy. Spykman identified North Sea, Mediterranean, Persian gulf and South China sea to be the cases for this theory, and this is where Philippines is an extremely important actor.

Philippines, for lack of better words, is a frontline state, due to geography, and in the eventuality of any conflict, or even escalating military competition, Philippines will have to be a part of it somehow, regardless of what it wants or seeks. Philippines, also on the other hand, is a developing country, and one of the rare countries in Asia with positive economic outlook and future amidst growth glut and depression all around. Filipino diplomacy is therefore extremely important in these times, as it might in future need more Chinese investment, as well as an alliance system to counter or balance China when the need arise. It is imperative therefore to form a non-partisan Realist foreign policy based on priority and national interest, rather than foreign policies based on the individualistic political framework of Macros, Arroyo, or Aquino for example.

Contrary to popular belief, a comparatively smaller state is often at an advantage in a regional geopolitical security game. It can avoid what is known as the Thucydides Trap. In the scenario of a conflict of interest between two Great powers, theories of perception and resolve come into play. Often it is difficult to back down due to unit level variables like international prestige and domestic politics. States like Philippines however are in an advantage of balancing US against China and in a naturally advantageous position to reap benefits from both sides, economic and military. It’s not something new in diplomacy; India, a small power during the sixties and seventies played the Soviets against Americans, shifting loyalties thrice from 1962 to 1991. Egypt did that before and after the Yom Kippur war. Pakistan does same between US and China, and Iraq is currently doing the same between Russia, Iran and the West. There’s a lesson there somewhere, for a smaller state to navigate the treacherous geopolitical quick sands, having a prudent course of action based on balancing and playing off two hegemons.

Finally, Philippines should independently start building up a moderately powerful navy. The Aquino administration painfully understood during the incident of the Scarborough shoal, which forced Filipino hands to seek for arbitration with China, an act, which is practically meaningless, as there is little chance of China following any rules set up by the tribunal, claiming indisputable sovereignty over the entire South China sea, and voluntarily rejecting the arbitration clause of the UNCLOS. Although Philippines hopes China will fall in line eventually, Foreign affairs secretary Albert Del Rosario visibly shared the frustration when he stated last week that China and Philippines had countless meetings but to “no avail”.

Philippines politicians however show no bipartisanship when it comes to analyzing and acknowledging the threat presented by a rising China and the need to balance. Candidate Jejomar Binay is known to court Chinese FDI, as he clearly thinks that the way to approach the South China Sea crisis is in economic coexistence and development. “China has money”…he mentioned, as he highlighted the need to develop South China sea in joint collaboration with China, a policy supported by candidate Miriam Santiago, who said it is only logical to talk to China, a policy that for lack of better word, neglects the forces of geopolitics in the region. In contrast, the government he served under Aquino has finally been more assertive in claiming its rights vis-à-vis China. Max Roxas and Grace Poe are both likely to be continuity candidates. Roxas was forceful in his statement that he will face up to China, and defend “what is Filipino interest”, without clarifying how exactly. Poe, whose candidacy was until recently under question has also hinted at a more liberal but internationalist tribunal/arbitration channel with a forceful American backing. In short, all the candidates are essentially looking at a single track ideological line, from their particular partisan perspective, which doesn’t reflect a foreign policy grand-strategy which is the need of the hour.

To conclude, a Realist course for Philippines foreign policy post-election would be to maintain an equidistant relation with China and US, courting FDI to continue its economic development, while embarking on a rapid buildup of navy. Philippines can also take part in training exercises with offshore powers, just to use the events as leverage against China. In an anarchic system and an increasingly multipolar and volatile world order, ultimately it is a state that is responsible for its own security maximization, based on its own unique situation and Philippines is no different. Hopefully politicians and policy makers will take note.

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham. He is also a foreign affairs correspondent and weekly columnist for The Interpreter, Russia-Direct, China.org.cn and a regular contributor to the Center of Land Warfare, in New Delhi. He tweets at @MrMaitra. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.



Categories: Philippines

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