The latest in the now-protracted West Philippine Sea saga comes in the form of new military facilities built by China on some of the disputed islands according to released satellite photos from American think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. The images show missile shelters and radar and communication sites under construction on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs.
For his part, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said experts from the department are still studying if the structures are indeed new. If they are, he would recommend to the Department of Foreign Affairs that the Philippines file a formal diplomatic protest against Beijing.
The development comes in the heels of a US Navy destroyer sailing within 12 nautical miles of a small isle in an island chain claimed and controlled by China, earning the ire of the Asian power who called it a “serious political and military provocation.” The incident involving American warship USS Stethem is the second spat in six weeks, although US officials claim the patrol is routine procedure authorized by the principle of freedom of navigation.
Closer to home, the US Embassy confirmed weeks ago that American soldiers, at the request of the Philippine government, are providing technical assistance to Filipino troops battling ISIS-aligned terrorists in Marawi City.
Local security officials clarified, however, that no American personnel was directly involved in combat operations. The two countries signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951—five years after granting of Philippine independence—but the 1987 Constitution forbids direct participation of foreign troops in local conflicts.
In a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte, Ambassador Sung Kim had renewed his country’s commitment to support the Philippines’ counterterrorism and rehabilitation efforts in the embattled Islamic city even as fighting rages on far longer and more fiercely than initially expected.
This support—despite a perceived cooling of relations early in the Duterte administration—reveals the vital importance of stable ties with our historic and traditional allies, as well as the possibility of such ties recovering their old strength, especially in critical areas of cooperation such as counterterrorism, a real global, borderless threat.
Elsewhere, there were more displays of alliance in the high seas. Lorenzana confirmed that the US Navy combat ship USS Colorado, after a naval exercise in Cebu, conducted some joint patrols with the Philippine frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz in the Sulu Sea, ostensibly to deter piracy and other illegal activities.
The joint patrol also “further demonstrates US commitment to the security of the Philippines and enduring US interest in promoting stability and prosperity in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” the US Embassy in Manila said.
Amid the profound dangers posed by the possibility of a global terrorist network, the imperative to categorically protect the country’s sovereignty and national patrimony even as we take advantage of key alliances is stronger than ever. On one hand, the country’s stance on issues like the West Philippine Sea dispute should be guided by an abiding belief in what by law and by history belongs to us, from physical territory to the resources that rightfully belongs to the Filipino people.
On the other hand, as a small state in a global stage rife with competing interests, it is in the best interest of the Philippines to maintain and fortify the rule of international law. This is the only way for the country to secure a semblance of a level playing field faced, for instance, with a rising superpower like China. This is exactly what gave the Philippines distinct ascendancy when it received a favorable arbitral tribunal ruling, something that this administration can still take advantage of.
A worthwhile model is Japan’s proactive approach in international affairs, in particular in upholding international order specifically on the security and governance aspect of the maritime domain. Its “multilayered security cooperation” forged critical ties with like-minded countries with coastal territories that are important in Japanese sea-lanes of communication.
The Philippines, for instance, stands to benefit from a planned provision of patrol vessels to boost, on one hand, its search-and-rescue and fisheries protection capabilities, but also its maritime surveillance capacity vis-à-vis increased Chinese incursion in Philippine-claimed waters.
Ultimately, the complexity of the dynamic in the region tells us that the government’s independent foreign policy should by no means focus on pleasing Beijing at the expense of all the other players. The two, it bears repeating, are not mutually exclusive.
A year after landmark ruling from The Hague, independent think tank Stratbase ADR Institute is holding a forum called “The Framework of Conduct, One Year After Arbitration” on July 12 at the Manila Polo Club. Fresh insights and analyses geopolitical issues will be discussed by top experts which include Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana, former DFA secretary Albert del Rosario, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and Stratbase ADRi president and academic Dindo Manhit, among others.