JPRI Critique Vol. XVIII No. 2 (May 2012)
Why Would the Philippines Take On China?
by David Arase

Why would a small weak country like the Philippines want to confront China over islands in the South China Sea? After all, with no significant war fighting capability it has no hope of challenging the Chinese navy, and economically it has much more to lose than gain from angering China.

There are four factors that may help to explain this seemingly irrational behavior. First, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has to deal with rival political elites as well as a population that is unhappy with a dysfunctional justice system, stagnant social development, and worsening wealth inequality. The conflict with China is a convenient opportunity for Aquino to become a national champion fighting to protect all Filipinos from a “big bully” trying to steal their wealth and national honor.

Second, there is an international legal regime that took the international community many years to create called the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that governs maritime jurisdictional claims by states in oceans that until recently have been treated as a global commons used by all and belonging exclusively to no single state. It includes principles of ownership and a dispute resolution mechanism that the Philippines believes should be used if China and the Philippines cannot directly negotiate an acceptable compromise (as is presently the case).

Third, the Philippines has the quiet support of all other countries in East Asia that have an active maritime jurisdictional dispute with China. This would be South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Vietnam. Indonesia has no direct involvement, but it supports the Philippines because, as a country with 15,000 islands, it has a vital interest in the principle of peaceful settlement of maritime boundary disputes in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia have difficulties with China in cooperatively managing common water resources in the Mekong River system, and so they sympathize with the Philippines in its fight with China, though they may not actively support it for fear of inviting Chinese punishment.

Finally, there is U.S. support for Benigno Aquino III and the Philippines. Before Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie visited Manila in May 2011 to discuss Chinese naval presence in the Spratleys, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III pointedly flew out to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson while it was crossing the South China Sea heading toward the Philippines. When it made port in Manila, U.S. Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. spoke on carrier's deck, “Now and in the future, we will maintain our strong relationship, and we are dedicated to being your partner whenever you are in harm's way.” [1]

Why should Aquino trust the United States to back him in a dangerous confrontation with China? When dictator Ferdinand Marcos imprisoned his father (Benigno Aquino, Jr.) from 1973-1980, the United States demanded his release and gave Aquino Jr. asylum in Washington, D.C. The United States then supported his father when he returned to the Philippines to challenge Marcos in 1983. After Marcos arranged for his father's assassination, the United States assisted Marcos' removal from power and helped Cory Aquino, Benigno Aquino III's mother, succeed Marcos as Philippine president. Why should Benigno Aquino III doubt U.S. support after all this?

Why should the United States back the Philippines in this confrontation? The continuation of U.S. global hegemony, which is based on military alliances, requires it. The U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (1951) commits both parties to common defense in the event of “an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” Also worth noting is that in November 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Del Rosario signed the Manila Declaration (which reaffirms the Mutual Defense Treaty). Thus, if China were to use force against Philippine “public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific,” U.S. credibility as a security guarantor would be at stake. Moreover, the Philippines' location gives the United States a strong military position in maritime Southeast Asia.

So, what should China do? Upon signing the ASEAN Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea in 2002 and ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2003, China cited a “new security concept.”[2] This concept pointed to common threats and called for cooperative solutions. It also called for a multilateral process to secure regional peace and harmony. China's neighbors welcomed this message and China's soft power quickly grew.

However, China now seeks to secure its interests unilaterally over the objections of its smaller neighbors, and China threatens to punish them if they object. The result is a return to old-fashioned balance of power politics where might makes right. Not only is this out of step with global thinking, it is also harmful to three of China's most basic interests.

First, China needs an alternative to a balance-of-power security system, which only favors U.S. military strength. It needs a multilateral East Asian security community that rules out the use of military force to settle disputes among neighbors. In this new security paradigm, the China-Philippines dispute would be resolved through joint development and shared prosperity. The new role of the Chinese navy would be to protect both China and the Philippines, making China, as the strongest regional power, the natural guarantor of a prospering and friendly community. The need for U.S. bases would be gone.

With respect to the regional economy, China needs to unite East Asia because China cannot continue its rise by itself. A military conflict with neighbors will divide the region from China, and give the West a reason to reduce economic ties with China.

More generally, China needs to build trust and shares with the world a long-term interest to introduce more transparent and participatory mechanisms to order global relations. By working with neighbors to advance in this direction, China advances it claim to be a global political leader in a way that earns trust and respect, not fear and loathing.

David M. Arase is Professor of Politics at Pomona College. He is author or co-author of many acclaimed books, such as Buying Power: The Political Economy of Japanese Foreign Aid (Lynne Rienner) and The US-Japan Alliance: Managing Soft and Hard Power in East Asia (Routledge). He is currently conducting research and teaching in China as Resident Professor of Politics at the Johns Hopkins University – Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. This paper was originally published in Chinese language in 21st Century Business Herald , May 21, 2012.


1. Pia Lee-Brago, “US: We'll Stand by Phl,” The Philippine Star , May 18, 2012. [Return to Text]

2. China's Position Paper on the New Security Concept , Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, July 31, 2002. [Return to Text]

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