There are far bigger forces that are at play in South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea). There are bigger yet unseen interests at work. Either President Benigno S. Aquino III is incognizant of these or is not receiving the full range of political intelligence. Whatever it is, there are striking contradictions in the Aquino administration's handling of the Philippine-China territorial feud in South China Sea and underneath such differences are unseen vested interests.
For weeks, there has been some muscle flexing as both the Philippine and Chinese governments staked their claims over the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal – or Huangyan island, according to Beijing. Tensions and near- skirmishes have erupted in these areas – known to contain rich oil, natural gas, and marine resources - involving the two countries and other claimant states for the past 12 years. The sea also serves as a major trading route that links Asia with the rest of the world.
Current regional and global conditions shed light on why bigger tensions have surfaced in these areas in recent years. For one, China, currently the world's second largest net oil importer, is moving tooth and nail to secure its access to this energy source and for which it is forced to modernize its maritime force and engage as well in muscle-flexing particularly in Asia Pacific.
In the U.S., President Barack Obama last year announced that American military projection will increase in Asia Pacific while boosting bilateral and regional defense partnerships and interoperability operations. The U.S. and Australia were firming up the deployment of U.S. military facilities in the latter to enhance the Pentagon's containment and encirclement of China. As this developed,
U.S. arms trade, Obama said, will likewise increase particularly in Southeast Asia in order to boost America's export industry.
Numerous high-level talks have been held between the Philippines and the U.S. since the beginning of the Aquino presidency in July 2010. Topping the agenda in these talks are the Spratlys territorial dispute, U.S. military assistance, arms acquisitions and purchases including two secondhand U.S. frigates, and joint war exercises. This week, the
U.S. commander in the war exercises confirmed that the exercises are part of Obama's national security directive to increase American military and naval presence in Asia Pacific. Aquino III said he was willing to help the U.S. in this context and that America's military assistance and exercises would help secure oil exploration and increase the AFP's capability in disputed territories. Despite denials by both sides, the Washington Post last January reported that talks between Philippine and U.S. defense panels included installing permanent U.S. military facilities in the Philippines aside from “rotating and more frequent” U.S. presence in the country.
The confluence of these events should lead one to look at the territorial disputes from a different lens. Are fears and tensions in the South China Sea being stirred up in order to justify the increase of U.S. military presence in the Philippines and the whole region? Are these designed to boost U.S. arms trade in the Philippines and the whole region as well as to justify bigger a military budget for the AFP modernization? Can't Aquino's strategic policy makers see the option of using diplomatic negotiation however attritive since it opens a bigger universe of possible solutions vis-a-vis the military option which ties your hands to just precisely it – the use of arms?
Military hawks may prefer an armed option and others would invoke international law like the toothless UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). But contemporary politics dictates that most territorial feuds including those involving China have been resolved in the bargaining table.
For related reading, see: CenPEG Issue Analysis 03, Living in the Past: Mishandling the Spratlys Territorial Row, June 24, 2011.