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Five things Duterte should do in the West Philippine Sea

Published July 19, 2017 10:23am


“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” wrote Sun Tzu, China’s legendary strategic thinker, in The Art of War. This is perhaps among his most memorable lines, which is of paramount importance for those who are concerned with our options in the West Philippine Sea.

It is particularly relevant in light of the (misguided and false) debate on whether we face either a suicidal war or peace (or accommodation) on Chinese terms. For those who are deeply familiar with China’s maritime strategy and the maritime disputes in the region, it is crystal clear that Beijing seeks domination short of conflict.

Instead, China prefers non-kinetic approaches, which don’t involve direct exchange of bullets and missiles, but instead rely on the "three warfare" strategies: psychological warfare, propaganda warfare, and legal warfare (rewriting of international rules) to demoralize, deter, demoralize, and shock rivals. The aim is to make rivals internalize defeat and shun any resistance whatsoever.

This is precisely where the “salami-slicing”(bit-by-bit expansion without triggering war) and “cabbage strategy” (swarming rivals with a three-tier layer of fishermen, coast guard vessels, and naval forces) phenomenon comes into the picture. As I wrote in my book Asia New Battlefield China, in recent decades, has exhibited an uncanny ability for pushing the envelope in adjacent waters, but always stepping just short of direct conflict with neighboring countries.

While militarily dominant China can’t afford a war for at least three reasons: First, this would provide a pretext for greater American (if not Japanese and Indian) military presence in the area; second, it would dearly hurt China’s export-oriented economy, which is heavily trade-dependent; and, perhaps most crucially, it could end up in a humiliating outcome for its untested military, which some Western commentators have dismissed as a ‘paper tiger’.

After all, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hasn’t fought a single major war since the end of Cold War, and is still undergoing major overhaul after decades of neglect, corruption and bureaucratic bulge. Yet, China has all the reasons to impress upon its rivals that the choice they face is either war or negotiation on their terms. It is a classic Trump-like Art of The Deal negotiating strategy, which has brought wealth and success to both belligerent nations and aggressive corporations throughout the ages.

Thus, we should always be skeptical of those who present a false binary choice, because while we may want to think or speak in black-and-white terms, reality always lies in the gray areas. As Buddha would have put it, there is always the “middle path” or “third way.”

In fact, this is precisely the position that has been taken by almost all other Asian countries, from South Korea in the Yellow Sea to Vietnam and Indonesia in the South China Sea and India and Bhutan in the Himalayas, who have also been grappling with and resisting Chinese territorial assertiveness.


While the Benigno Aquino administration deserves credit for standing up to China via a landmark arbitration award, the Rodrigo Duterte administration deserves praise for, so far, managing a "soft landing" in the South China Sea. As a scholar and observer of the disputes over the years, these are my five humble propositions to the Duterte administration on the way forward in the West Philippine Sea.

1. Negotiate, but from a position of strength. We should, without any reservation, welcome the resuscitation of frayed diplomatic channels between the two parties. In geopolitics, you can choose your friends, but not your neighbors. I am glad that no less than an old friend and a highly capable person like Ambassador Chito Sta. Romana is now in charge of facilitating this process. Throughout the years, we have supported resuscitation of diplomatic ties with China and criticized Aquino’s lack of engagement strategy.

After years of frozen relations, and almost zero institutionalized interaction among our top leaders, finally the Philippines and China can sort out the blueprint of a long-lasting ‘golden age’ in bilateral relations. This can be achieved through conflict-management mechanisms, which will prevent unwanted conflict in the area so that we can focus on areas of common concern.

At the same time, however, the Philippine government and top leaders should refrain from any language or action, which may communicate defeatism or downplay our bargaining chips, particularly our arbitration award, which can be used as a platform to mobilize multilateral diplomatic pressure on China (See my Brookings Institution article here), a country that desperately wants to be seen as a responsible power and regional leader. The last thing we need at this point is for officials to openly downplay the relevance or deny the binding and final nature of the award. This simply feeds into the Chinese propaganda line.

2. Raise the costs of defection. Despite our improving bilateral relations with China, the reality is that Beijing continues to expand its artificial islands in the Spratlys, is already fixing its gaze on the Benham Rise, and may proceed with building military structures in the Scarborough Shoal. Deployment of giant oil rigs into Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone is always a possibility, as the Vietnamese can attest to, not to mention the harassment of Filipino fishermen, military personnel, and energy exploration activities. Thus, it is extremely crucial for the Duterte administration to constantly remind Beijing that it is not setting aside the arbitration award, nor is it turning its back on old allies such as the United States and key strategic partners such as Japan, which are constantly evaluating their own counter-strategies to check Chinese ambitions in the area.

3. Buy time on the ground. One of the biggest mistakes of the Aquino administration’s strategy, in my opinion, was the postponement of earlier plans to refurbish and upgrade our facilities in Pag-asa (Thitu) Island and across the Kalayaan chain (Spratlys). Thankfully, there are indications that we will be correcting this mistake. Negotiations with China and other Southeast Asian claimant states can perfectly go hand-in-hand with our rightful duty to fortify our position on the ground. After all, all other claimant states have been doing this in the past two decades.

4. Separate economics from territorial issues. We should definitely welcome economic assistance and investments from as many countries as possible, including China, which is aiming to revamp the global infrastructure landscape under its ambitious transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the same time, however, we have to make sure that this won’t lead to any debt-trap, nor will it come with implicit strings attached, namely our territorial sovereignty and rights in the West Philippine Sea and Benham Rise.

5. Develop self-reliance and minimum deterrence. For years, I have constantly criticized Washington for wavering on the precise extent of its commitment to the Philippines. Unlike its predecessor, the Trump administration, however, seems to be willing to take a tougher stance in the West Philippine Sea. The Pentagon, based on my conversations with relevant individuals, is considering the option of explicitly placing the Scarborough Shoal under the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Washington may not care at all for the Philippines’ territorial claims, but it cares about its access to Subic and Clark and other major Filipino bases facing the South China Sea and, more broadly, China’s expanding military footprint across the world’s most important seascape.  This is about American hegemony. Yet, as in the case of Vietnam, which has a smaller economy than the Philippines, we have to learn to be self-reliant and not anchor our national interest on the whims of allies. In the end, the Philippines will have to allocate a larger share of its booming economy to developing a minimum defense capability against external threats. This is the true essence of an ‘independent’ foreign policy. Let’s start doing our assignment.

Prof. Richard Heydarian is GMA Network resident analyst, author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed, London), and widely considered as a leading expert on South China Sea disputes


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