The Philippines-China-U.S. Triangle: A Precarious Relationship

Tensions in the South China Sea are heating up.

Although there are no established “enforcement mechanisms” to ensure that the arbitration’s outcome will be binding, putting into the question the efficacy of the Philippines’ legal strategy, the Aquino administration hopes that its efforts will rally like-minded states such as Japan, Vietnam, the United States and India behind its cause. In fact, the Philippines has been encouraged by the fact that Indonesia, long seen as a neutral party vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes, recently chose to openly reject China’s “nine-dash-line” doctrine.

Nonetheless, the legal strategy runs the clear and present risk of irreversibly antagonizing Beijing. And this could undermine prospects for a diplomatic resolution of the disputes in the near future, paving the way for a military conflict.

Seeking American Support

Both the Philippines and the United States share similar concerns over China’s accelerated military spending—and its implications for regional stability and freedom of navigation in international waters. Instead of dialing down tensions in the region by exclusively focusing on a peaceful, diplomatic approach, namely the development of a legally-binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, Beijing has been relentlessly enhancing its naval capabilities. Critics claim that this is part of China’s short-to-medium-term goal of consolidating its territorial claims in the Western Pacific and its long-term ambition of becoming the preeminent naval power in Asia.

With many ordinary Chinese citizens developing strong feelings with respect to their country’s territorial claims in the Western Pacific, the Chinese leadership has also been grappling with a heightened climate of popular nationalism and media sensationalism, which has limited its room for diplomatic maneuver. At the opening session of the National People’s Congress in March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated that China would resolutely safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests. He underlined the Chinese leadership’s commitment to “further modernize [the Chinese military] and upgrade their performance, and continue to raise their deterrence and combat capabilities in the information age".

Facing a diplomatic deadlock, the Philippines is confronting the prospects of direct military confrontation with China. After all, Beijing can further expand its maritime patrols across the disputed waters, impose a tightening siege on Philippine maritime detachments, and implement an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. From the perspective of the Philippines, the Obama administration’s unequivocal commitment to aid its Southeast Asian ally in the event of confrontation with China is the ultimate form of deterrence. Many strategists believe that China’s assertiveness is a function of American strategic ambivalence under the Obama administration, allowing China to exploit the lopsided balance of power in the region, especially with respect to Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Moreover, the Philippines’ anxieties stem from the fact that its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States is slightly vague on the question of mutual military obligations in an event of territorial conflict in the South China Sea. This is in contrast to the U.S.-Japan MDT, which implicitly states in Article I that American forces are obliged to contribute to the security of Japan against armed attack from without.