Asia’s New Battlefield: The Philippines’ South China Sea Moment of Truth

Asia’s New Battlefield: The Philippines’ South China Sea Moment of Truth

The Scarborough Shoal fight approaches climax.

Both candidates don’t seem to be gung-ho on the Philippines’ arbitration case against China. So it’s possible that the next Philippine government will not fully leverage the arbitration outcome against China, and in exchange might seek guarantees from the latter on the nonmilitarization of Scarborough Shoal. But given the great anti-China sentiment in the Philippines, coupled with bitter experiences with join-development arrangements with China in the past, the Aquino administration’s successor will have relatively limited room for maneuver, especially if China decides to build military facilities on the Scarborough Shoal and/or escalate its para-military and fishing activities within the Philippines’ EEZ.

At this point, everything boils down to how far the United States is willing to go to aid its beleaguered ally. There is growing pressure on the Obama administration to openly extend the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty to Scarborough Shoal in order to deter further Chinese belligerence. After all, America’s current policy of strategic ambiguity doesn’t seem to have worked. As America ramps up its military presence in the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, it has no interest in seeing China establishing military bases eerily close to Philippine shores.

More directly, the Philippines also has the option of deploying frigates and coast-guard vessels to block any efforts by China to build military facilities on the contested shoal, with America providing back up support—through reconnaissance missions and aerial patrols, inter alia—by maintaining a robust presence ‘just over the horizon’. The two allies have been already conducting joint patrols in contested waters. America is currently augmenting its military footprint, particular air power, in the Philippines, signaling preparations for potential contingency interventions in coming months. In the Scarborough Shoal, America is expected to come to the Philippines’ rescue if Philippine “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific” come under attack by a third party (China) in an event of armed clashes. The United States, along with allies such as Japan and Australia, are also expected to assume the de facto role of enforcers once the arbitration verdict is out. Whether it wants it or not, the Philippines is now at the center of Asia’s new strategic battlefield.

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in political science at De La Salle University, and formerly a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). The Manila Bulletin, a leading national daily, has described him as one of the Philippines’ “foremost foreign policy and economic analysts.” He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific (Zed, London), and a regular to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Image: Philippine Marines at an exercise. US military photo, public domain.