Belligerent stance vs rapprochement policy in SCS dispute

THE South China Sea (SCS) has long been a flash point of geopolitical tension in Asia. The dispute over the SCS is not limited to China and the Philippines but involves multiple claimants, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Yet, the interplay between the Philippines and China, particularly under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s leadership, underscores the dispute’s contentious and consequential nature.

The Philippine approach toward China in navigating this dispute is notably confrontational, introducing complexities that reverberate throughout the region, ultimately with the potential of adversely impacting regional stability, peace and security dynamics.

The Philippines’ stance toward the SCS dispute has shifted considerably between administrations. The incumbent, Marcos, has adopted a more belligerent approach, contrasting sharply with the policy of rapprochement pursued by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Hence, examining the implications of this shift for the Philippines’ national interests and regional peace, security and stability is imperative.

Marcos vs Duterte policies

Indeed, the Marcos administration has adopted a more confrontational posture in the SCS dispute with China, with a foreign policy more leaning toward the United States and aligned with the US Pivot to Asia or Indo-Pacific strategy, a move that could have significant repercussions because of an increased risk in the potential escalation of military tensions, which could disrupt the delicate equilibrium in the SCS, potentially unsettling regional peace and status quo.

Marcos’ strategy emphasizes bolstering the Philippines’ military ties with the US, epitomized by initiatives like the “expanded” US- Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement military bases totaling nine, the trilateral defense/military pact and alliance between the Philippines, Japan and the US, and the regular joint military exercises and naval patrols between the Philippines and the US alongside US allies in the contested SCS. This approach underscores the strategic dependence of the Philippines on the US for both military capabilities and diplomatic backing.

Consequently, the Philippines finds itself being perceived by its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) counterparts as a surrogate for US strategic objectives in the region, raising apprehensions that it could become a geopolitical proxy and pawn akin to Ukraine in the Asian context.

In contrast, Duterte’s tenure as president was marked by a policy of rapprochement with China. Duterte adopted an independent foreign policy of being a friend to all and an enemy to none, which has benefited the country greatly, both economically and security-wise, even amid the Covid-19 pandemic at that time.

Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” intended to find a “geopolitical nonaligned position” or a “middle ground” between the US and China. The Philippines remains a friend of the former but deepens its friendship and mutual understanding of the latter from a diplomatic and economic stance in order to maximize national interests.

Under the Duterte administration, “independent foreign policy” was established to foster a broader and differentiated set of relationships solely based on Philippine national interests, designed to maximize the country’s autonomy, security and prosperity, and preserve Philippine sovereignty and national integrity.

Duterte made considerable changes to foreign policy by reorienting the Philippines’ diplomatic relations to more friendly and constructive relations and engagement with China as opposed to a more pro-US stance, going against the antagonistic relationship toward China under the late President Benigno Aquino III’s administration.

Duterte strategically emphasized diplomacy, utilizing dialogue and negotiation to address the SCS dispute with China and other claimant states. Concurrently, he fostered mutually beneficial economic and trade ties with China, leveraging Chinese investments and infrastructure projects to propel the country toward economic growth, development and prosperity.

Duterte’s pragmatic rapprochement policy toward China reflected astute foresight, recognizing the necessity to adapt to the shifting power dynamics in the ever-evolving and tension-laden Asia-Pacific region. By prioritizing economic progress and engaging in constructive diplomacy, Duterte aimed to mitigate tensions in the SCS dispute and safeguard the Philippines from being marginalized amid regional transformations.

Implications for regional stability and peace

The shift from Duterte’s policy of rapprochement to Marcos’ more belligerent and confrontational approach to the SCS dispute with China has significant implications for regional peace and stability.

It’s important for Marcos to remember that the situation in the contested waters of the SCS is complex and involves multiple claimants, including China, with overlapping territorial and maritime claims. Actions taken by any party can be perceived differently depending on the perspective. A mounting escalation of tensions could adversely impact the Philippines and regional countries while disrupting the delicate regional balance, security, peace and stability.

It is also crucial for the Marcos administration to note that a belligerent approach to a conflict could significantly increase the likelihood of military confrontation between the involved parties. This could lead to armed conflict, causing loss of life, destruction of property and humanitarian crises, underscoring the need for caution and careful consideration in handling such disputes.

Furthermore, a confrontational approach to the SCS dispute may isolate the parties involved diplomatically, making it harder to find peaceful resolutions through diplomacy, dialogue and negotiation. Such a scenario can further exacerbate tensions and hinder regional cooperation and integration efforts. Furthermore, a belligerent approach to the SCS dispute may have a destabilizing effect on Asean. Excessive and exacerbated tensions in the SCS could undermine Asean’s unity and cohesion, weakening its ability to respond collectively to security dilemmas and challenges.

More importantly, the involvement of the US and its allies in the SCS dispute through extending military support to the Philippines or through US military presence in the SCS raises the risk of proxy conflicts/wars. This could further escalate tensions and widen the scope of the conflict beyond the immediate region of the SCS.

Dispute resolution

If the Philippines truly wants peace and security in the region, it should pursue a path toward a secure and peaceful regional environment that does not involve the proliferation of military and defense pacts and alliances. This path promises a future built on diplomatic engagement, mutual respect and the unwavering pursuit of peace, economic prosperity and harmony.

In resolving the dispute over the SCS with China and other claimant states, the Philippines should prioritize diplomacy, peaceful, pragmatic, open-minded negotiations and consultation with all claimant states. The Philippines likewise should foster a discourse that transcends immediate strategic interests and considers the long-term vision of a stable, independent and peaceful region as essential. Only through such a comprehensive and reflective approach can the true interests of the Philippines and its neighbors be secured. History has often shown that nations have best secured their future through peaceful cooperation, not belligerent and confrontational actions.

To conclude, the SCS dispute between China and the Philippines is a complex issue that requires a delicate balance between legal, diplomatic, economic and strategic considerations. Undoubtedly, a belligerent and confrontational approach to the SCS dispute poses a significant threat to the peace and stability of the Asean region and the broader Asia-Pacific, with far-reaching consequences for security, economics and the environment

However, there is hope in diplomatic efforts aimed at peaceful resolution and cooperation, which remain essential to mitigate these risks and promote stability in the region, instilling a sense of optimism among regional countries and peoples of Asia-Pacific.

Source: The Manila Times

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD), Peking University, Beijing, China. She is currently a director and the Vice President for External Affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a think tank based in Manila. She also serves as the political/geopolitical analyst of ACPSSI. Currently, she is a Senior Researcher of the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) and a Senior Research Fellow of the Global Governance Institution (GGI). She is also the President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines. Prof. Anna Uy taught Political Science, International Relations, Development Studies, European Studies, Southeast Asia, and China Studies. She is a researcher-writer, academic, and consultant on a wide array of issues. She has worked as a consultant with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs.