New risks loom in South China Sea
President Rodrigo Duterte faces in 2019 new security risks in the South China Sea (SCS), as the United States steps up its war games in the Philippines that entwine with bigger operations in the SCS up to the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
On Sept. 28, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) agreed to ramp up joint war exercises to 281 in 2019, from 258 in 2017 and 261 this year. Mutual defense and counterterrorism will mark next year’s war games, aside from humanitarian and disaster response. The new deal is a volte-face on President Duterte’s 2016 pledge to end all US-Philippine war games, which was later softened to just noncombat training.
A plan floated by US rightist foreign policy advocates is to hold the next biggest US-led multinational maritime exercise Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) 2020 in the SCS. The Philippines took part in Rimpac 2018 last June-August off Hawaii, along with 24 other navies minus China and Russia. The new plan will involve a coalition of states aligned with or friendly to the United States, to challenge what the Pentagon calls China’s maritime expansionism and militarization in the SCS.
An icing on the cake in the Sept. 28 deal is a US pledge to back the AFP modernization with new high-tech arms sales like F16s. The new security menu is taking shape amid USINDOPACOM’s enhanced freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) in the SCS, backed by B-52 bombers, to assert international rules, maintain balance of power, and protect US primacy in the SCS and the whole Indo-Pacific. Recent US sea operations have been joined by warships from the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan.
Retaliating at the “provocations,” China has turned from issuing diplomatic protests to sending last Sept. 30 the PRC Layung destroyer, forcing the missile-guided USS Decatur to change course as it maneuvered within 12 miles of Gaven Reef in the Spratlys. China has ratcheted up its response by denying US port calls in Hong Kong and calling off diplomatic and security talks with Washington.
Such rising tensions should not be taken casually, as they come on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s bleeding tariff war with China, which will likely hit all its $505 billion exports to the United States next year. Aside from this, Trump has imposed new economic sanctions over China’s arm procurement from Russia. Ratcheting up US Fonops has been proposed, along with using similar penalties on Chinese and other foreign firms involved in the SCS reclamation buildup. Trump’s monkey wrench on China reaches the East China Sea with similar Fonops, as well as the Taiwan Strait, where the United States is boosting its defense alliance with Taiwan with $330 million arms sales.
Seen from his December 2017 national security strategy, which names China as a global security threat, Trump’s aggressive toolkit aims to isolate China, undercut its economic rise, and foil any hegemonic ambition on its part to challenge the United States. Trump supporters and realist thinkers consider China’s $900-billion Belt and Road Initiative, which now links 88 countries, along with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and other projects, as embodying Beijing’s geopolitical goals to replace US global preeminence. Such accusation has been denied by Beijing.
Closer to home, however, the SCS flashpoint will put the Philippines in a bind. Should it play its role in the United States’ new belligerent operations against China and risk antagonizing Beijing? An enhanced security cooperation with the United States will affect Philippine-China bilateral talks on security issues and a planned joint exploration in the SCS. It will also drive a wedge within Asean, as talks are underway with China on a final Code of Conduct in the region. Mr. Duterte will come under pressure to invoke the July 2016 international arbitral award, which rejected China’s nine-dash line claim in the SCS.
Getting embroiled in a China-US brawl is the least of Mr. Duterte’s worries as he faces major domestic challenges in the coming year. Aside from worsening inflation, trade deficit and growing debt, the Duterte administration’s vulnerabilities that could trigger more political storms, if mishandled, are the Bangsamoro plebiscite, the 2019 mid-term elections, Moro and Islamic State-inspired extremism in Mindanao, and the armed Left, which, despite his wishes, the President is unlikely to finish off by mid-2019.
Bobby M. Tuazon is director for policy studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance. He teaches at UP and is editor and coauthor of 16 books.
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