Talk at the 2015 Jefferson Fellowship Program, Manila Hotel, May 18, 2015
With the central element of its Grand Strategy being the prevention of the rise of a regional power in the Eurasian landmass that would threaten its global superiority, the US under the Obama administration has put in motion the containment of China via military and economic means. The so-called “Pivot to Asia” has involved the refocusing of Washington’s strategic assets, especially its naval power, on the region, while the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” aims to constrain the rise of China’s economic might. Meanwhile, although China does not aim for global hegemony, it does aim for it at a regional level, and the US military assets and allies on the East Asian littoral and island-chain pose a major obstacle to this ambition.
Some smaller states in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, caught in between this great power rivalry, seek to maximize their political and economic independence by playing off one against the other, though with a weak hand that, as in the case of the Philippines, leads to subordination to the goals of the power it chooses to ally with. Another middling state, North Korea, has chosen to ensure national survival not so much by taking sides but by developing its own nuclear arsenal and adopting a posture of deliberate unpredictability.
Then there is Japan, an economic power but military protectorate viewed with great suspicion by its neighbors that is using the Chinese threat as an excuse to rearm and eventually throw off both its strategic subservience to the United States and military inferiority to China.
Pawn in the Great Game
The Philippines is one of the tragic pawns in this “Great Game.” The Aquino administration has foolishly allowed the US to draw it into a military agreement, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), that essentially allows Washington to convert the whole country into a springboard to contain China in exchange for just a few of what the Americans call “Excess Defense Articles” like retired Coast Guard cutters without committing the Americans to a defense of its Western Pacific territories claimed by China. This is what John Feffer characterizes as “Pacific Pivot on the cheap.” As Frank Chang of the Foreign Policy Research Institute writes, “It clearly offers the United States a cost-effective way to enhance its presence in Asia, something that Washington has wanted to do for a long time.”
For the Philippines, the increase in obsolete military donations from Washington will be more than offset by the negative strategic consequences. First of all, EDCA will paradoxically bring the Philippines farther away from a resolution to its territorial disputes with China, which will be marginalized by the dynamics of a superpower conflict. Second, it will turn the Philippines into another of Washington’s “frontline states” like Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the detrimental and destabilizing effects of such a status—including the subordination of the country’s economic, social, and cultural dynamics to Washington’s security needs. With EDCA the
Philippines is right back to its position during the Cold War, when it played the role of handmaiden to the U.S. containment strategy by hosting two huge military bases. The small window of opportunity to forge an independent foreign policy that the Philippines gained with the expulsion of the U.S. bases in 1992 has been rudely closed. Third, EDCA will move the region farther away from the negotiation of a collective security agreement, which is a far better alternative to volatile balance-of-power politics.
From Balance of Power to Collective Security
The Philippines’ territorial conflicts with China are real, but the way to resolve them is to rely on international law and diplomacy, and this is a terrain in which the Philippines has a big advantage. The Philippines’ submission of a 1,000-page “memorial” delineating the country’s entitlements in the West Philippine Sea to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal at the end of March last year was a giant step in this direction. Beijing knows it does not have a leg to stand on in international law, which is why it has been pushing the Philippines to drop the case on pain of “damaging bilateral relations.” The Philippines must also maximize its diplomatic option, where it also has an advantage over Beijing. It must press its ASEAN partners to remind Beijing to live up to the commitment to negotiate a binding code of conduct on maritime behavior in the West Philippine Sea that it made at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Brunei in June 2013. It was pressure from ASEAN and internationally that forced Beijing to make this commitment, and it will be consistent pressure that will force it to follow through on it.
The Philippines should also prepare the ground at the United Nations General Assembly for the eventual introduction of a resolution condemning Beijing’s unilateral annexation of some 80 percent of the South China Sea, brusquely disregarding other littoral states’ rights to their continental shelves and 200-mile EEZs. There’s a very good recent precedent: Beijing’s aggressive annexationism is essentially similar to Russia’s gobbling up of Crimea, which the General Assembly condemned early in 2014.
The strategic aim of these diplomatic efforts must be to bring about a collective security agreement for the region that would include ASEAN, Japan, the two Koreas, and China. The ASEAN Regional Forum was headed in this direction in the 1990s, despite the opposition of the United States, which arrogated unto itself the role of enforcer of stability in the region. Its momentum was unfortunately derailed by the Asian financial crisis in 1997, which swept the rug from under the credibility of ASEAN’s major states. Though the process will be difficult, it is time to revive this project of collective security, since the unstable and volatile balance-of-power politics favored by Washington is not a viable mechanism for regional peace and security.
Balance of Power and Instability
Let me end by saying that Washington’s imperial “pivot,” China’s aggressive moves, and Japan’s opportunistic moves add up to a volatile brew. Many observers note that the Asia Pacific military-political situation is becoming like that of Europe at the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of a similar configuration of balance of power politics. It is a useful reminder that while that fragile balancing might have worked for a time, it eventually ended up in the conflagration that was the First World War. None of the key players in East Asia today may want war. But neither did any of the Great Powers on the eve of the First World War. The problem is that in a situation of fierce rivalry among powers that hate one another, an incident like a ship collision—intended or unintended–may trigger an uncontrollable chain of events that may result in a regional war, or worse.