United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III, during his visit to Manila last week, reaffirmed his country’s commitment to help the Philippines strengthen its defense posture. The US would support the Philippines in case of attacks, he said. Citing the deep, strong, and lasting ties between the two countries, Mr. Austin and his Philippine counterpart, Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez, Jr., discussed concrete actions to address destabilizing activities in our archipelagic territory.
Secretary Austin went as far as describing the Philippines as more than an ally. “We’re family,” he said.
These words provide a measure of comfort as we look for the best way to respond to China’s continued aggression — and deceptive narratives — in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). Last month, just a few days after Chinese leader Xi Jinping assured President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. that Filipino fishermen would not be prevented from fishing in the WPS and that a dedicated communication line on the issue would be established between the two capitals, reports broke out that a ship belonging to the Chinese Coast Guard had driven Filipino fishermen away from Ayungin Shoal.
The diplomatic protests and notes verbale have been many. Too many, in fact. Clearly, protesting China’s incursions using words is not enough. Clearly, too, we need to understand and anticipate the designs of our giant neighbor before we can find the most effective way to deal with it.
The Stratbase ADRi-organized roundtable forum among geopolitical experts held on Jan. 31 suggested ways for the Philippines to move forward. The situation is becoming increasingly tense and volatile, not only in the waters surrounding our archipelago, but in the entire Indo-Pacific region. This is a region which China, judging by its actions over the years, is bent on projecting its influence. The question is: how prepared are we to protect our interests?
One of the panelists in the forum, Lowy Institute Senior Analyst for East Asia Richard McGregor, believes that a crucial, fundamental step is understanding the complex dynamic of China and its leadership. He discussed how the current leader, Xi, who recently won a fresh five-year term, has successfully entrenched himself in power. He described how the top leadership of the Communist Party are all loyal to Xi and is above the law, how term limits have been eliminated with blurred the lines of succession, and how China is asserting economic power and technology on the international stage.
Given its disputes with numerous countries, however, China “simply does not have the trust of its neighboring countries to allow it to exercise the kind of role that Americans have. China will never be able to enjoy the influence of the United States on the rest of the world,” he said.
Still, China will keep on flexing its military might, as well as building on its economic influence. And this is why the next few years will bear watching.
“It will be highly unstable in the next decade or two,” Mr. McGregor said. Aside from China’s expansionist stance involving countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and its violations of our sovereignty and territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea, it also has simmering tensions with Taiwan which lies just to the north of our country.
Another geopolitical expert and panelist at the forum, Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong (Ret.), Professor of Praxis at the Ateneo School of Government and Trustee of the Foundation for National Interest, said the Philippines is considered “strategic real estate,” hence its crucial role and location in the Indo-Pacific. He identified the main maritime security challenges faced by the Philippines and outlined the components of a sound archipelagic defense posture that will allow us to address these challenges — a whole-of-nation/whole-of-government maritime defense strategy, interagency maritime security strategy, alliance/partnership management strategy — specifically with the US, Japan, Australia, and the European Union, especially France — and a whole-of-government supply chain strategy with countries like India and South Korea.
Mr. Ong acknowledged China’s efforts to influence local governments and businesses through sister-city engagements and investment pledges and warned about the so-called “hotline” between Manila and Beijing. “Optics,” he said. He cited the need for counterintelligence and synergy for the many maritime agencies tasked to protect and defend Philippine waters.
For his part, Richard Heydarian, non-resident Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute and Senior Lecturer at the University of the Philippines-Asian Center said the Philippines cannot be neutral in this ongoing game of deterrence, being an ally of the United States. He said we should focus on intelligence and security, with the guidance and help of countries like the US, Australia, Japan, and France.
All these point to one thing: Given the current threat that China poses to the Philippines and, to a wider extent, to the Indo-Pacific region, it’s the help of countries that share our values that will help us maintain our defense posture.
President Marcos always says that only “national interests” will govern the foreign policy of his administration. In this case, the national interest dictates that we defend our sovereignty and protect what is rightfully ours, secure our marine resources, and refuse to allow others to bully our fishermen and mock international law.
In upholding this interest, we must engage other states that share our values and principles. Specifically, we must bolster our intelligence and security capability, empower our maritime agencies, and conduct joint patrols with our allies.
We live in a complex and volatile world, made more challenging by the hegemonic ambitions of China. It is up to the rest of the international community, especially among countries that share the same values and principles, to work together to preserve a rules-based order that respects everyone and does not condone territorial infringement.
Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the president of the Stratbase ADR Institute.