South China Sea dispute: Where does the Philippines fit in?

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The recent tension between China and the Philippines in the maritime disputes over shoals and other features in the South-China Sea has grabbed the attention of security strategists and policy-makers around the world. Yet, this is but a part of a bigger game of geopolitics in the Southeast Asian region, as other states are heavily involved; primarily Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia. These states are all involved in some form of territorial disputes with one another, similar to the case of the Philippines and China. Looking into the possibility of conflict, the South China Sea is central to an understanding of the conditions of war and peace in the region. As Bill Hayton, author of the book ‘The South China Sea: the Struggle for Power in Asia’, puts it: “The South China Sea is both the fulcrum of world trade and a crucible of conflict”.

Bear also in mind that asides from regional actors the United States of America is also involved in the South China Sea. Though claiming no territorial features, the USA has traditionally played the key role of Hegemon due to its various commitments and interest, and as bolstered by its economic and military might. Most noticeably, the US military presence in Southeast Asia has shaped the relations among countries, particularly its allies like the Philippines, and continues to do so. More recently, the announcement of the so called US ‘pivot into Asia’ heralds a paradigm shift for US foreign policy as the US military focuses on projecting power in Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular. For US allies in the region, it could be interpreted as a firm commitment to security and regional stability. The Philippines, in particular, signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States.

For the Chinese, however, the South China Sea has always held a significant value: Historically and Economically. It should be noted that China has had tributary and commercial ties with the various states in the region well beyond the past two centuries. This may well mean that the Chinese considered Southeast Asia as its sphere of influence. In the latter half of the 20thcentury, the rise of China as a great power on the world stage is followed by a more assertive foreign policy towards the South China Sea. China’s historical claims to a vast area of the sea, as manifested in the “Nine-dash-line” has garnered criticism and alarm. Alex Bellamy in ‘Security, in Contemporary Southeast Asia’ puts it as thus:

“As its economy grows so will China’s need for energy – in an era of increasing energy scarcity – sparking fears that the Chinese might use its military muscle to secure much needed energy resources”

While the two great powers: the United States and China has not come to blows over the tensions in the South China Sea, can these disputes truly be flash-points for conflict? While the fear of geopolitical struggles may be alternatively settled via arbitration, as with the case of the Philippines which won a favorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration, it does little to hamper the pursuit of interests by the various state actors. The Chinese continue to build-up their military presence in the region, via island-reclamation and setting-up military installations in the waters of the South China Sea.

The Philippines resorted to arbitration due to its lack of hard power. It cannot stand up to China, militarily. Also, its close long-standing alliance to the United States has been leveraged in the past. Though the current administration of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has fostered closer ties to China and has not further utilized the legal victory of arbitration, the fact is that the United States still provides for the external security of the Philippines via its extensive military presence in the region. With this in mind, it is clear that the ruling alone is not sufficient to guarantee security.

What is happening in the South China Sea is a great power rivalry similar to that of the Balkan Crisis of the 1910s. Great Powers involved in the disputes of smaller states. The Problem with this scenario is the possibility of a local conflict spreading beyond. Furthermore, it is complicated by the fact that one of the world’s busiest waters is contested in this rivalry and should a real war be triggered by this flashpoint the effects on global commerce is huge. The dispute surrounding the South China Sea could further be aggravated by bolstering US Military Presence and the build-up of the defense capabilities of the states in the region. Hence, for the Philippines it means it is caught in a great balancing act in the years to come, on the one hand it has to deal with an increasingly assertive nearby China and on the other hand it has to accommodate the United States to provide security and counterbalance Chinese influence.

Sources:

  • Bellamy, Alex J, (2009), Security, in Contemporary Southeast Asia, 2ndedition. Edited by Mark Beeson. UK: Palgrave-Macmallan, Pp. 175-191.
  • Hayton, Bill (2014). The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. London: Yale University Press.
  • Kaplan, Robert D. (2014). Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. USA: Random House Publishing.