United Front only way to end Philippines’ standoff

Philippines President is stuck between an enemy he cannot trust and a friend he does not like.

— Interview with Prof Carl Shuster by Sanjay Kumar, New Delhi.

Tension is mounting in the South China Sea with the Philippines refusing to withdraw vessels from Whitsun Reef. Some 220 Chinese vessels congregated in early March at Union Banks and Whitsun Reef, providing for the present standoff between China and the Philippines. The area involved in the present dispute is well within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. China wants to dominate the South China Sea because that would give Beijing a strategic advantage against Taiwan and Japan, before risking a conflict over the Senkaku. President Xi Jingping has always gone for an easy target that he believes can be achieved with minimal risk and costs. Recent media reports suggest that China has warned the United States that it will face defeat if the two superpowers go to war, testimony to what China thinks about its military might.

The threat to the US has come from China in response to the joint military exercise recently carried out by the US, Japan, Australia and France amidst tension in the East China Sea. The involvement of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) of China in disputes along the maritime borders of the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan cannot be ruled out. This militia comprises mainly fishermen and coastal workers from China. In fact, due to early militia gains, China built ‘fishing shelters’ to protect their fishermen in the Spratly Islands. Despite these activities, the Chinese government headed by Chairman Xi has denied any link between PAFMM and China’s military. China claims that they are fishermen. This enables the PRC to deny any involvement of the Chinese government in these maritime disputes.

Regarding the present deadlock in the South China Sea where the Chinese Maritime Militia is not ready to leave Whitsun Reef, Prof Carl Schuster of Hawaii Pacific University says that this poses a dilemma for the Philippines as the Chinese Maritime Militia is not doing anything to disturb the peace. Can the Philippines believe China and its militia? The Chinese militia may leave the spot temporarily and come back again. The Chinese Coast Guard does not escort them. Schuster believes that the Philippines have to keep a close eye on China’s movement in the Whitsun Reef, particularly the Chinese Air Force. They don’t have to fear until the Chinese Air Force becomes involved in the present stalemate. They need to watch every action of China and also send a message that they are watching.

Prof Schuster says that the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte dislikes the United States and does not want a situation where he has to seek US help. In Schuster’s opinion, the United States should not help the Philippines either. By now Duterte should have realized that China is worse than the United States. The Philippine President is upset over the fact that if the United States was there to protect the Philippines from China and Russia, then why did it involve itself in the internal politics of the Philippines at the time of the coup. So, President Duterte is stuck between an enemy he can not trust and a friend whom he does not like. He is in a difficult spot.

Schuster thinks that countries with interests in the South China Sea should come together and back their respective Coast Guard to end the present crisis. China, he says, goes for easy prey. Look back at 1996, when the Philippines stopped patrolling the area around Campones Island after the United States left. China took advantage of the situation and captured Campones Island after a 90-minute gun battle. The Philippines later said that they could not patrol the area due to bad weather, which could be a reality. Yet the Philippines’ ships were old and they faced a Chinese fishing fleet with artillery and weapons. But it was too late, they had left it unoccupied, Schuster says. The Philippines took their eyes off the ball and paid for it.

On being asked how to end the present stalemate in the South China Sea, Prof Schuster says the United States does not have a position on the South China Sea, it is between the claimants. The United States’ only aim is to handle China. The Philippines never approached the United States at an official level to change its position. Schuster is of the opinion that the US can’t do anything directly to end the stalemate. What the United States can do is to back up the Philippines Coast Guard in the South China Sea. Once China comes to know about this understanding, it will be a different ball game altogether.

China is accustomed to moving in a vacuum. The situation will change completely if the American and Philippine Coast Guards would shadow the other’s vessels. The only thing which stops an aggressor is the fear of defeat. In Schuster’s view, more than the Philippines alone it will require a united effort by other countries affected by China’s bullying in the region, and Vietnam, Japan and the United States are willing to help the Philippines. Duterte says he doesn’t want to upset China, but when China bullies his countrymen, he gets very upset. China continues bullying the Philippine people because they know they can get away with it. The problem with Vietnam is larger. The Chinese will set up in Cambodia one day, which looking at the map, we see as a natural progression. This is going to expose Vietnam’s entire western border.

The Philippines will need submarines to defend its interests in the South China Sea, which Schuster suggests can be provided by Japan. Schuster believes Japan will help the Philippines with submarines and air power. Japan has a big stake in this area as 40% of Japanese maritime trade passes through this area. If China stops Japanese ships from entering the South China Sea, it would take 11 additional days for Japanese cargo ships to reach their destinations. What prevented Russia during the Cold War was not only fear of the United States but fear of the United States together with the European alliance. Likewise today, these several nations together can keep China in check. Such is the highhandedness of China that when an international arbitration held the present Chinese occupation illegal, China simply refused to abide by the judgment. However, this development will go in favour of the Philippines as the international community is aware of its disputed nature.

Commenting on why China is more active in the South China Sea than the East China Sea, Schuster said that China places greater importance on the South China Sea because of its strategic location: the South China Sea is easier to dominate. The PAFMM base in Sanya is closer to the disputed territories in the South China Sea than the PAFMM base in Guangzhou is to the Senkaku, and the fleet must pass through Taiwan’s waters. The East China Sea is not strategically located; the PRC’s military bases and airfields are closer to the disputed territory in the South China Sea than they are to the US bases in Japan, and both US and Chinese bases are equidistant from Senkaku. Also, Japan’s Coast Guard is stronger than those of Vietnam and the Philippines, so the PAFMM gets greater support in the South China Sea from the Chinese military establishment.

Traditional thought in the Chinese military believes in isolating the enemy and establishing an advantageous geopolitical and military superiority before engaging in war. But the best leader is the one who achieves victory without fighting. Schuster reminds that China has secured much of the South China Sea using the PAFMM to expand control without firing a shot. It has worked so far. However, doing that around the Senkaku Islands may prove to be difficult and expensive.

– Carl Schuster, commissioned Naval ROTC from the University of South Carolina in 1974, Captain Schuster served in a variety of U.S. and international posts at sea and ashore, Joint Staff Officer, Foreign Area Officer and Strategic Planner at his retirement in 1999. A widely published author with over 600 articles in print and on-call regional expert for CNN International, Prof Schuster has been teaching at Hawaii Pacific University since 2000.

– Interview by Sanjay Kumar, May 2021, New Delhi, India. Former MSN Chief Editor and New Media content strategist, 26 years handling print and online news media, 20 years in new media, has worked with major online media organizations including Times Internet, NDTV Convergence, HT Media Ltd and India Today Group, as well as Microsoft.

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