Recently, I had the opportunity to present at an experts conference on the South China Sea disputes in Myanmar, with maritime specialists from across the Asia-Pacific region gathering to explore innovative solutions to a brewing territorial conflict in Asia. With practically no functioning communication channels between the leadership of China, on one hand, and Southeast Asian states such as the Philippines, on the other, it was, in many ways, incumbent upon (apolitical) academics to craft and lobby for a viable diplomatic resolution to seemingly intractable disputes.
As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) chairman, Myanmar served as a critical venue for exploring a regional solution, balancing China's legitimate national interests against the grievances of its threatened, vulnerable neighbors. After years of living under China's shadows, Myanmar seemed to be well on its way to establishing a new relationship with the outside world, and willing to play an increasingly important and constructive role in the region and beyond. And this was highly visible in the way our hosts generously welcomed our suggestions for a more robust regional response to what China treats as purely bilateral territorial disputes.
The primary consideration for Myanmar and the ASEAN region is, as I made it clear during the conference, to push for a legally-binding Code of Conduct, which is based on agreed-upon regional principles and the relevant provisions of international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The urgency and magnitude of ongoing disputes have to serve as an incentive to displace the old "ASEAN Way" of gradualist, consensus-based decision-making, which has woefully fallen short of coping with emerging security challenges in the region. And to my surprise, given years of disappointment with existing regional mechanisms, top officials from both the ASEAN as well as the Myanmar government displayed a tremendous amount of appreciation for the need to overhaul the existing regional security architecture.
Despite all its shortcomings, and army of enthusiastic detractors, the ASEAN represents a crucial element in any prospective diplomatic resolution of the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The alternative, in my opinion, is pure "balance of power" politics -- and highly symbolic, but risky, legal confrontations. Diplomacy is a painstaking, energy-intensive endeavor, but it is always more preferable to outright confrontation, especially for smaller powers. As leading strategists -- including no less than Niccolò Machiavelli himself -- have suggested, it is always risky for smaller powers to rely on a mighty patron to push back against a powerful enemy. After all, there is always the high probability that the weaker party ends up as part of a larger strategic bargain between the two great powers.
Yet, leading figures within the Philippine government seem to have overlooked this fundamental geopolitical reality.
Shortly after our conference, I returned to Manila to cover the U.S. President Barack Obama's long-awaited visit (April 28-29) to the Philippines, which coincided with the signing of a new security pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Obama's visit was treated with unprecedented enthusiasm, with top Filipino officials emphatically announcing a new era in Philippine-U.S. bilateral alliance. For critics, however, the Aquino administration seemed to have offered Americans precious access to Philippine bases in exchange for marginal tactical advantages.
Under growing international pressure to flex American muscle, Obama, meanwhile, sought to reassure Manila of Washington's commitment to remain as an anchor of stability and prosperity in the region. But he didn't fail to remind his hosts that China represents an emerging superpower -- a pivotal country for America's national interest.
The Pivot to America
Constitutionally, the Philippine president is the main architect of the country's foreign policy. President Aquino, however, has been largely committed to addressing outstanding domestic economic and political challenges, which have undermined the Philippines' developmental trajectory, reducing one of Asia's brightest stars in the early-20th century into a regional laggard in the past decades. So far, Aquino has been quite successful in bringing about a semblance of economic dynamism and political stability, albeit fragile, to the country. But along the process, Aquino has inspired formidable opposition at home, especially among those, who have resented his relentless anti-corruption drive and, as his critics describe, occasional bouts of over-confidence.
With respect to foreign policy, Aquino has largely followed a populist-nationalist track, which has emerged in response to China's perceived territorial expansionism in the South China Sea. Aquino's anti-corruption initiatives also extends to many projects and important strategic deals between Beijing and the previous Philippine administration under President Gloria Arroyo (2001-2010), which were criticized for lack of transparency and tainted by allegations of corruption.
In practice, many claim that it is instead largely Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, who is the main driver of the Philippine foreign policy. A staunch supporter of the U.S.' Pivot to Asia (P2A) policy, Del Rosario has relentlessly pursued a revitalized security alliance with Washington. As a result, a short period of promising rapprochement in China-Philippine relations (2004-2008) was supplanted by a more robust Philippine-U.S. partnership against China. No wonder, many policy-makers in Beijing, who lament the awry state of Philippine-China relations, are perhaps asking: "Who lost the Philippines?"
As a former ambassador to the U.S., Del Rosario developed extensive contacts and linkages with the American policy-making circles, and this has, quite understandably, put him in a unique position to authoritatively shape Manila's strategy towards its principle ally, Washington. No wonder, he has been at the center of years-long negotiations (formal and informal) over a new security pact between the U.S. and the Philippines. The aim was to build a more robust alliance, which would help Manila to benefit from maximum military assistance from and defense cooperation with Washington. After all, the Philippines lacks even a minimum deterrence capability to hold on to features it already occupies in the contested waters of the South China Sea.
Shortly before Obama landed in Manila (April 28), Del Rosario oversaw the formal signing of the EDCA, emphatically stating how it "mark[ed] a milestone in [Philippine-U.S.] shared history as enduring treaty allies," and paves the way for a "new chapter for [bilateral] modern and mature partnership, firmly grounded on deeply held democratic values, common interests and shared aspirations."
Dispelling Geopolitical illusions
The EDCA accords American forces access to Philippine bases in exchange for greater military assistance to and more expanded joint-military exercises with the host country. It has a significant "human face," since it seeks to enhance the Philippines' capability to deal with humanitarian crisis and other non-traditional security issues.
Many leading figures were, however, disappointed with the new deal. They argued that the EDCA provides, at best, "marginal advantages" for the Philippines, and, at worst, may be in violation of constitutional restrictions on the establishment of foreign military bases on Philippine soil. They demand Senate deliberation on the defense agreement to ensure its constitutionality and compliance with the Philippines' national interest. Others lamented that the new deal represents a huge strategic setback for the Philippines, since the country decided to terminate the U.S. bases in Subic and Clark back in 1991.
But the reality is that the Philippines's earlier efforts at building a professional, modern armed forces was undermined by chronic corruption, lack of strategic foresight, and continuous battle with domestic insurgencies in communist-dominated rural areas and Muslim-majority provinces in the southern island of Mindanao.
As a result, an archipelagic country like the Philippines has a relatively huge army, mostly focused on domestic security operation, but has a heavily under-funded navy and coast guard. And it is yet to possess a single modern jetfighter. Meanwhile, the U.S. has consistently been a huge source of humanitarian relief and security assistance in recent years. No wonder, the majority of Filipinos have consistently expressed high trust in the U.S. as a reliable partner.
Nevertheless, many Filipinos wondered whether the U.S., under the 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty, will come to the Philippines' rescue if a conflict were to erupt over maritime disputes with China. During his visit, however, Obama disappointed his hosts when he refused to clarify whether the U.S. armed forces would do so. Just a few days earlier in Japan, Obama expressed his country's firm commitment to aid Japan if a conflict were to erupt over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Obama also made it very clear that the EDCA was not aimed at China, and that the U.S. was neutral with respect to the ownership of disputed territories in the South China Sea. He tried to encourage the Philippines to pursue a diplomatic compromise with China, since "it's inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in [Asia] region."
Overall, it is clear that the Obama administration seeks to avoid confrontation with China over the South China Sea disputes, while primarily concerned with freedom of navigation in international waters. Meanwhile, the Philippines will have to consider a creative diplomatic approach towards China, and this is where the ASEAN is of paramount interest.