Friday, April 21, 2017


Roilo Golez
Philippine National Security Adviser (2001-2004)

US Vice President Mike Pence's visit to Southeast Asia is most welcome considering that the South China Sea is one of the top four strategic concerns of the Trump administration. The four are: The US trade deficit with China and other countries; North Korea; ISIS and the Middle East, and; China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea.

But I am puzzled at the choice of Indonesia for Pence's visit. If the objective is a strategic message, it should be the Philippines.

First, the Philippines is the only treaty ally of the USA in Southeast Asia. And that alliance is now facing critical challenges because of President Duterte's announced pivot towards China and even Russia, the top two strategic competitors of the USA in the world stage.

For example, the once robust, kinetic Balikatan joint Philippine-US military exercises that used to focus on how to attack and defend islands and the use of modern weapons like HIMARS will now be focused on non-combat exercises like humanitarian assistance & disaster relief and civic action. The Balikatan is a part of the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 and should really be about defense against a hypothetical aggressor. Of course, in a typhoon ravaged Philippines, HADR is very important but it can be handled in a non-military setting so that other organizations can meaningfully participate.

There is also the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA that involves, as a start, the rotational use of five bases in the Philippines, four of which are air bases. The Supreme Court ruled last year that EDCA is constitutional but its full implementation remains uncertain. This is vital for regional and national security and was supposed to be a counterpoint against China’s expansionist moves in the region. It is accurate to say that the Philippine-US alliance is on the rocks in a country which needs good geopolitical massaging. One of the criticisms against the US is its unclear dependability as an ally in the face of a major challenger like China. There are accusations that the Philippine-US alliance is not as ironclad as the US-Japan alliance.

Second, the Philippines is located in a very strategically critical area that could tilt the balance of power in the Asia Pacific Region. It is the country closest to the cluster of artificial islands built by China, three of which have three kilometer runways. They can reportedly each host anytime now a 24-fighter jet squadron that could cover the southern part of the South China Sea, thus providing China the use and advantage of three unsinkable aircraft carriers. One of the artificial islands, Mischief Reef, is well within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines.

Another feature that has become the focus of strategic concern is Scarborough Shoal, also well within the EEZ of the Philippines. There are fears that China is planning to reclaim and construct here and if that happens, that would be a mammoth structure compared to anything that China has in the South China Sea. Scarborough Shoal is a cluster of rocks protruding in the ocean forming a triangular pattern with a big lagoon inside. The whole feature has an area of around 150 square kilometers and the navigable lagoon has an area of 130 square kilometers. For comparison, Pearl Harbor has a navigable area of 26 square kilometers.

The Philippines today is undergoing a vigorous debate on how to relate with China: Dispute or Cooperation? And the mantra from key government officials appears to be “Cooperation, not dispute. We have no chance in a dispute against China. It’s just too big. Cooperation is better because of the economic benefits.” And if that cooperation would go to its fullest, there is the possibility of China constructing on Scarborough that would give it a huge military-civilian facility (a purported master plan shows a runway, harbor, power facilities, tourism complex, etc.) and that would enable China to complete the Strategic Triangle that think tanks believe China is aiming at for full control of the South China Sea.

The two points of the Strategic Triangle are complete: Woody Island with a runway and already militarized in the Paracels. The second point is the cluster of artificial islands dominated by Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, each with a three kilometer runway that can be used by flankers, transport planes and strategic bombers. The third envisioned is Scarborough Shoal, the development or non-development of which depends on cooperation or dispute by the Philippines.

The third is the effort of the US to pressure China to respect the Hague arbitral tribunal ruling on July 12 last year. Again, the Philippines is the central player here. The Hague tribunal repudiated the validity of the nine-dash line and without that, China must go back to its Hainan border 700 miles North. The other day, the G7 issued a joint communique urging China to respect the arbitral tribunal process and respect the rule of law. That is most welcome but a bigger push from the US right here in the Philippines where the debate and China’s territorial aggression are raging will have a more telling effect. As Americans say, “in his face” is more impactful. Not holler in the periphery but shout it here in the center of gravity of the South China Sea dispute.

Dispute or cooperation? Both sides have their valid points as far as benefits for the Philippines are concerned. National security, enhancement of defense capability, more economic development through trade with China vs. trade with the West, security alliances and geopolitical realignment are the key issues that would decide the "Dispute vs. Cooperation" debate for the Philippines. Next month, President Duterte will be attending the launching of President Xi’s One Belt, One Road or OBOR initiative. Could that mean that the Philippines will become the Southeastern terminus of OBOR?

The aforementioned issues would have serious geopolitical and geostrategic implications that should have been addressed by an early visit of the US Vice President to a country that, because of its geography, is a central player in the balance of power game in the Asia Pacific area.

Or could it be that the US just does not desire to ruffle the feathers of China in the middle of the North Korean crisis. That’s trading off long term gain for short term advantage.

Note on author:

Roilo Golez served as National Security Adviser of the Philippines from February 2001 to January 2004. He is a regular special lecturer in the National Defense College of the Philippines on the Soouth China Sea situation. he served as a member of the Philippine House of Representatives for six terms or 18 years where he chaired the Committee on National Defense and Committee on Public order and Security. The South China Sea and the Spratlys were among his key areas of concern in Congress. He is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, USA. He has participated in several strategic meetings in the philippines and abroad on the South China Sea and Asia Pacific security situation.

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