The tit-for-tat between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea issue escalated in 2012. Then Sen. Antonio Trillanes made multiple backchannel trips to Beijing that year purportedly to end the stand-off but despite such efforts, the Philippines lost Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) to the Chinese. The failed U.S. brokered deal led to then President Aquino to file a case with the UN in 2012 that got him a favorable ruling in 2016 but could not enforce the judgment.
From 2012 to 2016, China aggressively pursued building more artificial turfs on the Kalayaan Islands adding insult to injury. China didn’t submit to the U.N. arbitration court who handled the case and consequently, did not honor the ruling. With a woefully inadequate military, the Philippines could just only watch in tears as China ramped it up. China’s rationale for its impertinence was that it tried to encourage President Aquino to work together on how it could jointly utilize the contested regime of islands (as Arroyo did). But Aquino’s decision to confront the Chinese publicly won him the battle but he lost the war.
President Barack Obama’s 2014 “Pivot to Asia” in support of Aquino’s fight with China made matters worse. The purpose of the pivot was to rebalance the foreign policy focus of the United States away from the wars in the Middle East while trying to strengthen the U.S.-Philippine alliance after years of neglect. Aquino signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that year to allow the U.S. military to rotate troops in the country for extended time and to build and operate facilities on Philippine bases. Leftist groups questioned the constitutionality of EDCA to the Supreme Court but failed to get a favorable ruling.
The twin development highlighted the South China Sea issue, something that China was trying to avoid. China was not ready to slow down the building of artificial landing strips and the placement of military defensive (albeit offensive too!) hardware on these islands; so Obama’s pivot and Aquino’s green light was seen as an effort to contain China militarily. Thus, China asserted power and accelerated its claims in the South China Sea unhampered.
With this background, it is clear that Robredo’s strategic positioning will be tied to Aquino’s and the West’s stand on the matter. Former Sen. Antonio Trillanes role in the opposition is already turning out to be a liability not only with his back channeling with China (that opened him to accusations of treason) but his alleged handiwork that got opposition figures sucked into coup plots over the past several years including purportedly one in February this year that VP Robredo found it necessary to distance herself from.
Last year, the Trump administration tried to broker a deal for the Philippines to purchase the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) that the U.S. Army/Marines use. HIMARS is a multiple rocket launcher that can be used to defend the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) within 70 kilometers (regular rockets) or 300 kilometers for GPS-guided ballistic missiles like in Palawan. The effort was purportedly to help modernize Philippine defense capability, but the cost of HIMARS around $400 million dollars for 18 launchers is very expensive that the Philippines cannot afford and the U.S. will not give them for free or even part of the aid.
With such overtures it may appear that the Duterte administration is entertaining possibilities for the U.S. military return in the Philippines with the possibility of American/Australian shipping companies taking over the Subic shipyard from the South Koreans, this could be more of looking ahead to the next American president after Trump. Or better yet, trying to leverage the issue with China.
The Philippines is really between a rock and a hard place on the South China Sea issue because of competing security and economic interests of the country. The military modernization that the U.S. promised for decades is yet to materialize. Hence, the country is really left with hardly any choices militarily to confront China.
The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that Duterte served notice in February to effect its termination is a classic example. The move earned goodwill from China but that may turn out to be a fake pass since the VFA termination may no longer be an issue after President Donald Trump phoned President Duterte in April under the guise of helping the country fight Covid-19. The U.S. provided over P260 million pesos aid that was widely reported but was not personally acknowledged by Duterte with a thank you. Keeping the VFA, it seems, is part of Duterte’s strategy to get more from the Chinese.
Militarily, the United States is becoming less of a factor in the context of the South China Sea to contain China despite rhetoric to the contrary. Contrast that with China’s aggressive maritime deployments and exercises that involved incidents at sea even during the pandemic. Despite some resistance from Vietnam, Taiwan, and Indonesia; and while the U.S. aircraft carriers were pre-occupied dealing with the virus pandemic; China’s show of force off the Taiwan Straits, the Japanese claimed Shenkaku Islands, and Indonesian waters while harvesting large deposits of natural gas in the South China Sea exposed the U.S. impotence to prevent Chinese aggression.
Duterte is clearly in the driver seat with a new terror bill awaiting his signature. While many in the opposition look at the bill with trepidation as a harbinger of terror befalling the opposition; this bill is clearly in anticipation of things getting nastier in the coming months as the Philippines is drawn closer to China for economic relief.
China is consolidating power in Hong Kong and probably Taiwan next as a consequence of the worsening trade war with the United States and quarrel over the consequences of the pandemic. This power play has nothing to do with the South China Sea issue as that seemed to be settled as far as the Chinese are concerned with the renaming of 80 islands in the South China Sea as its own. President Xi knows that Trump is distracted with the pandemic wreaking havoc in the country, a raging people uprising due to police racially motivated brutality, and an economic depression already underway made worse by 25 million Americans still unemployed, so steady as he goes.
Whoever wins the U.S. presidential elections this year will not make defense of the Philippines a priority. If Trump is reelected, his interest will be making a buck for its military hardware where he could pay back an industry campaign donor. If former VP Joe Biden, a Democrat wins the White House, his priority will be to get the economy going, get people back to work, and try to undo the damage that Trump created. Biden will reset back to where President Obama left off; confronting Duterte on human rights and drug war issues thus complicating once more, any military arrangement needed to bolster defense of the South China Sea. (To be continued)