The Philippines’ decision to engage the US in an attempt to balance against China’s growing military power, especially in the disputed South China Sea, is anchored on a bitter episode in the past – China’s occupation of Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1994, two years after the removal of the US bases. To merit the distinction of being a responsible power, China has to reassure the Philippines that its rise to power will usher benefits and opportunities for the region and that China’s ascendancy will not pose as a threat to the security of its neighbours.
United States involvement or attempts by the US to get involved in the South China Sea (SCS) disputes is seen by some as a major factor in intensifying tensions in one of the world’s most critical regional flashpoints. China, as well as some ASEAN countries, does not welcome US participation in resolving the impasse over conflicting maritime and territorial claims in the strategic semi-enclosed sea. As such, countries like the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, have been perceived by some as aggravating the already tense situation by openly inviting US intervention and internationalizing what some see as a purely regional matter. This argument had long been played and, while it may make sense, certain historical circumstances raise questions over its indisputability.
As a long time US colony, the Philippines hosted the largest US bases in East Asia, enabling Washington to project naval and air power in the then Far East, as well as in the Pacific. This made the Philippines a necessary military target for Japan during World War II. These US bases continue to operate even after the country’s independence, providing the US with the wherewithal to check the spread of communism in the region, in turn providing external security for the Philippines. Unfortunately, this reliance on the external defense blanket provided by the US also stunted the growth of a self-reliant national defense establishment for the Philippines, which was exposed with the removal of the US bases in 1991. The Senate decision leading to the termination of the US bases agreement was passed with a rather slim margin. The issue of sovereignty and complete independence from the US were among the principal rationales cited by solons who voted for ending what many consider as the last vestiges of American colonialism and control over the Philippines. This was a low point in Philippine-American relations, and it would take about two decades to revitalize ties once more, with Philippine support for the US-led war on terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.
Looking back further in time, the end of the Cold War following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was welcomed by many with optimism. Vietnam pulled out of Cambodia in 1989, the Russians began gradually moving out of Vietnam in 1990 and peace in Indochina was within sight. However, what may be true in land is not true for the waters, as clashes in the South China Sea intensified with China and Vietnam exchanging fire in 1974, 1988 and 1992. The discovery of oil and gas in the area only added fuel to the disputes. China became a net oil importer in 1992 and both Beijing and Hanoi began issuing exploration contracts in waters they both claim. In February 1992, Beijing passed the Law on Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone laying claim to 80% percent of the SCS. Taiwan, Philippines, and Malaysia also began occupying features, if not fortifying or garrisoning already occupied features in the SCS. Seeing the writing on the wall, ASEAN issued a Declaration on the South China Sea in 1992 in Manila. Both Vietnam and China expressed support for the Declaration. In addition, Indonesia, with support from the Canadian International Development Agency, also began informal workshops in managing potential conflicts in the SCS in the 1990s drawing participants from claimant, as well as non-SCS claimant, countries.
However, despite efforts to stem the brewing tensions in SCS, the Mischief Reef (locally known as Panganiban Reef in the Philippines) occupation happened in 1994. This was a significant watershed in Philippines-China relations. It marked the first time that China occupied a feature claimed by an ASEAN country, the Philippines (Vietnam only became a member of ASEAN in July 1995). It was also the first time that China physically challenged the claims of another claimant besides Vietnam. A Filipino fisherman held by the Chinese in the said Reef for weeks informed Philippine authorities about the occupation. Was it to teach the Philippines a lesson for being a US proxy or was it precisely because of the absence of a US deterrent that China was emboldened to make such a move, knowing the state of the Philippines’ armed forces? Irrespective of the answer, this incident led to a re-assessment of the Philippines’ perception of a China threat; particularly with respect to the Kalayaan Island Group. It also gave momentum to the country’s defense modernization. Finally, the Mischief Reef incident also raised doubts as to the correctness of removing the US bases at a time when the country’s military capabilities are still weak.
Whether the occupation of the Mischief Reef was deliberate policy from the top, an initiative of some rogue PLA Navy elements operating without Beijing’s blessing or the adventure of Chinese fishermen from Hainan, the fact remains that what started ostensibly as fishermen’s shelters in 1994 eventually became a fortified military base by 1998. This is despite protests and calls for the removal of the said structures aired by Manila and the signing of a bilateral code of conduct between Manila and Beijing in 1995.
In sum, it became apparent that by 1991, as signaled by the termination of the US bases, the Philippines began developing a more independent foreign policy. China could have seized this opportunity to constructively engage a country that it had long perceived as a bulwark of US imperialism in Asia. Beijing could have even replaced the US as the dominant partner for the Philippines. The presence of ethnic Chinese in the Philippines, which is among the most tolerated and economically prosperous overseas Chinese communities in the region, could have served as a bridge towards this end. But far from encouraging the Philippines’ tentative steps, China’s action, as exemplified by the Mischief Reef occupation, only served to reinforce a negative image of China to many Filipinos, some of whom discarded the stories about MV Karagatan and other arms shipments to communist NPA rebels by China as hoaxes. Hence, the Mischief Reef episode, instead of making the Philippines accept the idea of a Pax Sinica in the region, produced the very effect that China detests – closer US-Philippine relations and the prospect of Manila being used as a proxy to contain China. A recent SWS survey revealed that many Filipinos have little trust in China. As many Filipinos remain critical of US military presence in Philippine soil, they would surely be observing the next Chinese moves, eager to see the sincerity of China’s charm.
This article was published by the Forging a New Philippine Foreign Policy and reprinted with permission from author.