The Buzz

Is The Philippines Making a Big Mistake in the South China Sea?

More than any country in the region, the Philippines has sought to protect its territorial integrity through “lawfare” (legal warfare), taking China to the court over maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Perturbed by China’s growing assertiveness across disputed waters, evident in its expanded para-military patrols, massive reclamation activities, and regular military drills in the area, the Philippines has also doubled down on its military spending, hoping to modernize its armed forces.

Like never before, the disputes in the South China Sea have become a key topic in the Philippine national discourse.  According to a Pew survey, up to 93% of Filipinos are worried about the prospects of war in the South China Sea, with a clear majority (58%) viewing China as a national security threat. The Aquino administration has astutely tapped into growing nationalist sentiments at home, portraying Manila’s struggle against its northern neighbor in biblical ‘David vs. Goliath’ terms.

The Filipino president, Benigno Aquino, on at least two occasions, went so far as to liken China to Nazi Germany, repeatedly dismissing diplomatic engagement with China as a form of appeasement. Back in 2013 and 2014, more than 60% of the population supported Aquino’s approach to China, but recent  surveys, however, suggest that a growing portion of Filipinos (46%) are now skeptical about the efficacy of the government’s approach to China. Of particular concern is the inability of the Aquino administration to tangibly defend the Philippines’ claims on the ground, while China has managed to rapidly build a sprawling network of civilian and military bases across the Spratly chain of islands. Not only has the Philippines effectively lost the Scarborough Shoal since 2012, but there is a growing feeling that the government has fallen short of sufficiently fortifying its outposts and defending its position on the ground amid a protracted lawfare with China.

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The Trailblazer

The Philippines, specifically under the Marcos dictatorship (1965-1986), was among the first countries to build an airstrip along with advanced military facilities in the South China Sea. Recognizing the Darwinian nature of the territorial struggles among half a dozen nations in the area, Manila shunned legal arbitration in favor of a de facto exercise of sovereignty over disputed features in the Spratly chain of islands.

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Confident of its military capabilities, and reassured by robust American military presence on its soil, the Marcos regime managed to exercise control over numerous features in the Spratly chain of islands, including the much-prized Thitu (Pag-Asa) Island, the second largest feature in the area. Thanks to its strategic foresight during Cold War, the Philippines enjoyed enormous tactical advantage relative to other claimant states in the area.

Soon, however, other claimant states began to replicate the Philippine strategy in the area, building their own airstrips and expanding their military presence in the area. Meanwhile, succeeding Filipino administration progressively neglected the imperative to maintain and upgrade fortifications on the ground. Shortly after the departure of American bases (1992), China opportunistically wrested control of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, revealing the vulnerability of Manila’s position in the area.

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Still, the Philippines continued to neglect the necessity to strengthen its position on the ground. As former Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez told me, Filipino leaders continuously “ignored the strategic value of a string of rocks and reefs and shoals that are convertible into potent military stations to control the vast sea around.”

Catch up Time

The Philippines’ rusty, dilapidated outpost in the Second Thomas Shoal painfully reveals the lopsided nature of the country’s South China Sea strategy. Since 1999, the Philippines has grounded a World War II relic, the Sierra Madre tank-landing vessel, in order to assert its claim over the disputed reef.

Over the past 16 years, the ragtag outpost has hosted, on a rotational basis, a small contingent of Filipino troops, who have had to withstand hunger, numbing solitude, violent weather conditions, scorching heat, and intensified Chinese harassment.