It's not about fear: What drives the Philippines’ response in the South China Sea

Philippine academic Robert Joseph P. Medillo says that rather than looking at the Philippines’ reactions to China’s actions in the South China Sea from the prism of fear, one can understand it as standing up to a major power, through building a collective of like-minded states that can rally together to press for transparency and accountability from China.
A Philippines coast guard personnel looks at the Chinese Coast Guard vessel as they come close during a mission to deliver provisions at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea on 10 November 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)
A Philippines coast guard personnel looks at the Chinese Coast Guard vessel as they come close during a mission to deliver provisions at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea on 10 November 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)

As stated in “Fear Factor: Northeast Asian Responses to China’s Rise” by Nicholas Khoo, regional states’ responses to China can be framed within three prisms of fear: fear inflation, fear deflation and qualified fear. 

Fear, as defined in the dictionary, is “unpleasant, often strong emotions caused by anticipation or awareness of danger”. The operative words in this definition are “anticipation” and “awareness”, which suggest that fear is speculative, more or less subjective, and to some extent, abstract. 

While fear has been a useful lens for observing how states behave, it may have direct policy implications, especially for regional states vis-à-vis China or any hostile great power. Specifically, it may constrain one state’s ability to implement decisive actions be it kinetic (i.e., offensive strategy) or potential (i.e., defensive strategy) towards a great power that threatens the security of a relatively small, regional state.

Three prisms of fear

Fear inflation refers to the view put forth by scholars like John Mearsheimer that states compete for power and engage in a zero-sum game. For instance, China, with its status as a great power surrounded by littoral states, exhibits revisionist tendencies and is expected to use its economic growth as a means to modernise its military and coerce regional states. Furthermore, it is seen to deliberately challenge the current international order and its proponents by weakening their links and alliances through various means other than war. 

A person rides a bike past Beijing's central business district, in China, 1 November 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
A person rides a bike past Beijing's central business district, in China, on 1 November 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

Meanwhile, fear deflation suggests that China is a benign power. Scholars like David Shambaugh, Alastair Iain Johnston and David C. Kang have put forth that through convergence in regional identities, increased levels of economic interdependence with regional states, and its socialisation within various international institutions, China has more or less proven itself to be a responsible member of the international community. 

At the middle of these two extreme prisms is what Khoo terms qualified fear, advanced by several scholars in the book Living with China edited by Shiping Tang, Mingjiang Li and Amitav Acharya, which says that regional states’ responses to China are multifaceted and are primarily anchored in their concern for security. Herein, the emphasis should not be on the extreme and dichotomous views of China but on how regional states and China could move forward for greater cooperation. 

The different views on China in the Philippines in the past years since the end of the Cold War can also be characterised by these three prisms of fear. 

In the Philippine context 

Some view China as revisionist and dangerous. They say that given China’s economic might, it will have the necessary means to entice the different players and stakeholders in the Philippines with material benefits for influence, while pursuing military modernisation and enforcing what it considers as maritime historical entitlements, particularly in the South China Sea (SCS). 

This handout photo taken on 2 December 2023 and released on 3 December by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) shows an aerial view of Chinese vessels gathered by Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometres west of Palawan Island, in disputed waters of the South China Sea. (Handout/Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)/AFP)
This handout photo taken on 2 December 2023 and released on 3 December by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) shows an aerial view of Chinese vessels gathered by Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometres west of Palawan Island, in disputed waters of the South China Sea. (Handout/Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)/AFP)

Another view is that China, as a rising power, is relatively peaceful. There is a thriving Chinese diaspora in the Philippines, the markets of the two countries are more or less increasingly interdependent, and both countries are proactive and cooperative in various multilateral fora. 

Some suggest that the Philippines should learn to live with the geographical reality of being China's neighbour. They argue that rather than being frank, legalistic-formalistic, and vocal, which allegedly is unbecoming of Asian culture, it is better to appease China with the hope that it will work in good faith with the Philippines and exercise restraint in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). 

... for the Philippines, what truly drives its responses is not the “fear of China” but the “fierceness of China”, that is, its aggressive moves.

Finally, there is also the view that the Philippines should compartmentalise its relations with China, focusing bilateral relations on low-politics areas such as trade, infrastructure, and development, and temporarily setting aside those that are considered high-politics such as territorial disputes. 

I argue that considering past experiences and current developments in the WPS, the “China fear” factor is a fallacy. At least for the Philippines, what truly drives its responses is not the “fear of China” but the “fierceness of China”, that is, its aggressive moves. In other words, the Philippines’ major steps on the WPS issue have been driven by its primary objective of seeking accountability for the fierce actions of China in the area. 

(Graphic: AFP)
(Graphic: AFP)

When assessing the Philippines’ actions on the WPS issue, the question therefore is not how fearful is it vis-à-vis China’s rise and its growing assertiveness in the WPS, nor how fearful the country will be in the future. Rather, the question should be how the Philippines seeks accountability for China’s aggression. 

Focusing on China’s ‘fierceness’ 

The Philippines’ responses or reactions to China are the results of the latter’s dangerous acts against Philippine vessels and fisherfolk, as well as its violations of the principle of the rule of law. 

China dismissed the 2016 arbitration ruling and has extended its nine-dash line to a ten-dash line claim over the entire SCS. It also disregards maritime safety laws at the expense of the personal safety and rights of fisherfolk, media crew, as well as civilian and military personnel performing their duties at sea.

Recently, China’s behaviour also posed a danger to the marine ecology where its vessels allegedly conducted indiscriminate and massive harvest of corals in the WPS, a clear violation of Article 192 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which obliges states to protect and preserve the marine environment.

Since the inauguration of the new leadership in Manila in June 2022, China has become more aggressive towards Philippine vessels in the WPS, largely due to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s categorical pronouncement to defend and preserve the country’s territorial integrity. Since then, Philippine vessels conducting patrols and resupply missions, as well as fishing vessels, have been the subject of intimidation and harassment. 

In February 2023, a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel directed a military-grade laser at the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel BRP Malapascua during its support operations for the Philippine Navy’s rotation and resupply (RoRe) mission in Ayungin Shoal. In October 2023, another CCG vessel collided with a Philippine military-contracted boat for a RoRe mission in the same area. This November 2023, the PCG reported the highest number of Chinese vessels spotted within the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal. 

A China Coast Guard vessel (left) and a Philippine Coast Guard vessel are seen near Thitu Island in the disputed South China Sea on 1 December 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)
A China Coast Guard vessel (left) and a Philippine Coast Guard vessel are seen near Thitu Island in the disputed South China Sea on 1 December 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)

China’s main objective is to prevent any effort to sustain the BRP Sierra Madre, the Philippines’ decade-old commissioned ship that was intentionally run aground Ayungin Shoal under the Estrada administration in order to establish the country’s sovereign rights under the UNCLOS. 

The Philippines has already learned the hard lesson of never trusting China’s good words as the latter does the actual opposite on the ground.

Learning the hard lesson

These scenarios prompted the Marcos Jr administration to increase its maritime patrols and operations in the WPS, and implemented a whole-of-government approach to ensure that China's actions are transparent.

The Philippines has already learned the hard lesson of never trusting China’s good words as the latter does the actual opposite on the ground. For instance, China has continued lurking in the WPS despite the Arroyo administration’s campaign to transform the SCS issue into a joint development venture with China and Vietnam.

Under the Benigno Aquino III administration, China lobbied hard to prevent any statement from being released regarding its submission of a note verbale to the UN that outlines its nine-dash line claim. During the last months of the Duterte administration, China also made a last-minute call to invoke the arbitration ruling, when despite the so-called pivot to China, the latter never ceased its coercive activities in the WPS and failed to fulfil its pledges to support Duterte’s grand infrastructure programme.

China’s historical record of two-faced diplomacy, culminating in its upfront interception of Philippine vessels at the expense of civilian and military personnel safety, pushed the Philippines to call out China’s actions for what they are. 

Philippine Coast Guard personnel are seen on Thitu Island in the disputed South China Sea on 1 December 2023, for the unveiling of a Philippine Coast Guard monitoring station. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)
PCG personnel are seen on Thitu Island in the disputed South China Sea on 1 December 2023, for the unveiling of a PCG monitoring station. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)

The Philippines has pursued bold and upfront decisions or actions not based on fear but in response to the intolerable fierceness that China has demonstrated. This is evident in the key actions taken by the Philippines under the Marcos Jr administration. 

Strengthening cooperation with US and Australia

Given China’s aggression wherein its intimidation of civilians in the WPS is increasingly prevalent, the Philippines ought to prioritise humanitarian assistance and disaster response in its maritime domain with the support of its allies and strategic partners. 

First is revitalising the Philippines-US alliance after six years of its lowest points during the Duterte administration. In April 2023, the Philippines and the US announced additional location sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). These are Naval Base Camilo Osias in Santa Ana, Cagayan; Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela; Balabac Island in Palawan; and Lal-lo Airport in Cagayan. The additional sites aim to strengthen the interoperability of the Philippine and US armed forces to address shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Interestingly, the funding for infrastructure projects in these additional sites are also meant to spur economic activities and job opportunities for local government units and their constituencies, which, for the past years, have been vulnerable to China’s economic inducements through its sister city and sister province partnerships.

In the WPS, the US has been instrumental in boosting the work of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which includes the safe and accurate documentation of Chinese vessels’ dangerous manoeuvres during maritime patrols, regular RoRe missions, and marine resources surveys. 

On November 2023, the Philippines and the US conducted joint naval and aerial patrols with the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) as their mutual effort to observe and enforce the UNCLOS, International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. This demands that China abide by the same conventions and codes with which it is a signatory. 

Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, Commander of the US 7th Fleet (right) and Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci Jr, Flag Officer in Command of Philippine Navy Exercise Scheduling SAMASAMA 2023, talks during the opening ceremony of Exercise SAMASAMA 2023, the annual bilateral navy-to-navy exercise between the Philippines and US at Philippine Navy Headquarters in Manila, the Philippines, 2 October 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)
Vice-Admiral Karl Thomas, Commander of the US 7th Fleet (right) and Vice-Admiral Toribio Adaci Jr, Flag Officer in Command of Philippine Navy Exercise Scheduling SAMASAMA 2023, talks during the opening ceremony of Exercise SAMASAMA 2023, the annual bilateral navy-to-navy exercise between the Philippines and US at Philippine Navy Headquarters in Manila, the Philippines, on 2 October 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)

With Australia, the Philippines has elevated the bilateral relations into a strategic partnership during the meeting of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with President Marcos Jr in September 2023. At its core is the civil maritime security cooperation to improve inter-agency cooperation and interoperability through information sharing and utilising activities such as Exercise PALAKAS. The two leaders also underscored their common views on the need to uphold international law in the SCS.

With the Philippines’ very limited floating assets, China has been able to consistently dominate the WPS by intimidation and coercion.

Stronger ties with Japan

The third important step undertaken by the Philippines is boosting its maritime patrols and law enforcement capability through its strategic partnership with Japan, which will help the Philippines capacitate its maritime law enforcement agencies and increase their presence in the WPS. 

With the Philippines’ very limited floating assets, China has been able to consistently dominate the WPS by intimidation and coercion. Of late, the PCG recorded the highest number of Chinese militia vessels in the WPS. This is despite the Philippines calling out the Chinese's dangerous blockage of Philippine vessels conducting RoRe missions.

Just this November 2023, the Philippines and Japan signed key agreements on security, defence and maritime cooperation during Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s bilateral meeting with President Marcos. Central to these agreements is the Exchange of Notes on the Official Security Assistance (OSA) from Japan to the Philippines. This milestone agreement would allow the two countries to level up their bilateral relations, particularly in the area of defence and security. Through the OSA, the Philippines’ defence department shall secure coastal radars for the AFP, which are important for increasing maritime domain awareness capability. 

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sits at the bridge aboard the BRP Teresa Magbanua ship at the Philippine Coast Guard headquarters in Manila, the Philippines, 4 November 2023. (Ezra Acayan/Pool via Reuters)
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sits at the bridge aboard the BRP Teresa Magbanua ship at the Philippine Coast Guard headquarters in Manila, the Philippines, on 4 November 2023. (Ezra Acayan/Pool via Reuters)

Japan and the Philippines also commenced the formal round of negotiations on the reciprocal access agreement (RAA). Through the RAA, the two countries’ armed forces may access each other’s territory for joint military exercises.

For years, Japan has been a constant in the equation of Philippine foreign policy across different presidential administrations. However, it kept a low profile on defence and security cooperation due to its constitutional limitations. This limits Japan’s engagements with the Philippines to peace and development, scientific cooperation, transportation, agriculture, etc.

The OSA signals a clear commitment from both countries to work hand-in-hand on their shared defence and security challenges. Like the Philippines in the WPS, Japan is facing China’s fierceness over the Senkaku Islands. 

... the constant need for greater cultivation of relationships with like-minded states inside and outside the region.

Philippines on the right track

It is indeed time to stop framing the Philippines’ responses to China within the rubrics of fear. The country’s responses or reactions to China’s behaviour in the WPS have been interpreted as either anti-China (fear inflation), pro-China (fear deflation), or the middle (qualified fear), giving China the benefit of the doubt. However recent steps taken by the Philippines illustrate a small state’s agency to hold a great power accountable not based on one’s anticipation or awareness but based solely on facts. 

These steps also signal a new direction and the beginning of consistency in Philippine policy in the WPS — the constant need for greater cultivation of relationships with like-minded states inside and outside the region.

As a country that has been at the receiving end of China’s fierce actions in the WPS, now is the time to proactively build and strengthen its bilateral relations, and to call for the international community’s support to ensure that the rule of law prevails in the region. 

Philippine soldiers look at Philippine Coast Guard vessels near Thitu Island in the disputed South China Sea on 1 December 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)
Philippine soldiers look at Philippine Coast Guard vessels near Thitu Island in the disputed South China Sea on 1 December 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)

Given the evidence pointing to China’s fierce actions in the WPS and the entire SCS, there is now a clear collective interest that rallies together like-minded states. In action, it is about pursuing the accurate documentation and reporting of facts on the ground, invoking the principles of international law, calibrating maritime patrols, increasing civilian security protection and expanding military exercises. Essentially, though, it is about rejecting arguments based on fear of or mere speculations or myths about China, and pressing for transparency and accountability regarding the harm it has caused.

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the official positions, views, and opinions of the Philippine government, particularly, the Department of National Defense and its bureau the National Defense College of the Philippines. Any errors or shortcomings found in the article are those of the author alone.

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