PH At Center Of US-China Conflict Over SCS


A RECENT article in the American magazine Foreign Affairs has caused a bit of a stir in the region. It argues that time is running out for the US to secure its interests in the South China Sea and suggests what it should do to preserve them. The article conflates US interests with those of China’s rival claimants and raises some fundamental questions for US policymakers as well as those in the region.

The argument goes like this. China has militarized the features it occupies and modernized its military to the extent that it may overwhelm US forward deployed forces before its reinforcements could arrive from extraregional bases. Moreover, rival claimants cannot do anything about China’s salami slicing and interference with their resource related activities in their own legal exclusive economic zones (EEZs). They thus need US backup to deter China. If the US fails to provide this, they will question the US as a regional security guarantor and consider making deals with Beijing. So, to reassure these claimants and “persuade” China to back off and compromise with them, the US needs to place its warplanes, warships and missiles in the region.

To do this it needs hosts, and the most likely one is the Philippines.

Indeed, the implementation of the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) would allow the US to pre-position, under US control, personnel and defense materiel, likely including intermediate range missiles.

This argument raises many questions. Just whose interests would the US be protecting — the Philippines and that of other claimants, its own, or both? If both — is the trade off in risks worth it for the Philippines and other claimants?

Why the Philippines — why not Indonesia, Malaysia or Vietnam? The reason is because they won’t agree to become proxies and targets on behalf of US interests. The US already has the Philippines nibbling “on the hook” with the EDCA, so it is pressuring it to accept this arrangement when no other Southeast Asian country will do so.

But this raises many issues for the new Philippines government.

First, it has to mollify its nationalists that do not want a return of US troops or their immunity from Philippine laws and prosecution or pay the price in Filipino lives. While there is ample Americanophile support within the Philippine populace, and especially the military for the reestablishment of US “bases,” they will bring back the same problems that drove them out — a lack of respect and abuse of Filipinos, and especially Filipino women, as well as the Filipino culture. The US military could be one rape of a Filipino away from being evicted again.

Moreover, the government would have to deal with the likely economic blowback from China for siding with the US, and worse, those US “places” and their surrounding area and people would become prime targets in a US-China conflict.

The Foreign Affairs article concludes that its suggested solution “would secure US interests at an acceptable cost by pushing China toward a compromise that its neighbors and the international community could live with.”

But the question is — acceptable to whom — the US or to Southeast Asian claimants?

It then goes on to say that this “compromise” would mean that China must recognize “freedom of navigation for commercial traffic, access for foreign navies and resource rights for coastal states.”

While this makes an important distinction between navigation for commercial traffic and “access for foreign navies,” it leaves open the meaning of such “access.” This could be a deal breaker for China.

The US conflates freedom of commercial navigation with the “freedom” of its military to spy on and threaten China’s defenses. While China does not object to ordinary military transit of the South China Sea, it does object in word and deed to certain military activities that it thinks violate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) requirement to pay due regard to its rights and duties in its EEZ. If this is what is meant by “access” this is a non-starter for China.

The Foreign Affairs article then sketches two false choice scenarios. In a doomsday prediction, it warns that China’s expanded military would lead to a shutdown of rivals’ petroleum exploration and fishing in the disputed areas, and a costly rise in shipping insurance. This would cascade into the end of the US- Philippine alliance, snowballing violations of Unclos and ultimately, the collapse or redefinition of the world order.

This sequence contains several leaps of logic including a linkage between China’s domination of the South China Sea and the collapse of the world order.

The alternative, according to the article, is a compromise between China and rival claimants that Washington supports.

It says, “The details of the arrangement shouldn’t matter to the US.” But “imposing costs on, and shaping incentives for China,” will take years and a coalition of Asian and European partners. So, the renewed US military presence in the Philippines and the upgrading of the militaries of China’s rival claimants is necessary to buy time for this plan to work.

The role of the Philippines in case a war in Taiwan erupts was already decided by a D.C. “think-tank” funded by the Pentagon and US weapons companies, Center for National Security (CNAS) which was even broadcast in NBC News, which shows US bombers flying out from the Philippines enroute to Taiwan.

With the possible exception of Indonesia, it is highly unlikely that any of China’s rival claimants will confront China militarily. Even if they do, they almost certainly would be defeated without US backup. Despite its pronouncements, that backup is not guaranteed for a domestically and internationally beleaguered US.

If the US wants to avoid direct conflict with China in the South China Sea, it must accommodate to some degree China’s aspirations and interests there. But for the sake of stability, China must accommodate some of Asean members’ interests — particularly those of its rival claimants.

In both cases, on what issues, when, how and how much are to be negotiated. Only then can there be lasting peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Another version appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Dr. Mark J. Valencia is an internationally-known maritime policy analyst. He is currently an adjunct senior scholar at National Institute for South China Sea Studies. He has worked with the East-West Center, National Bureau of Asia Research, Woodrow Wilson Center, Maritime Institute of Malaysia, and Japan’s Ocean Policy Research Foundation. He has been a Fulbright Fellow in Australia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

A similar version was published in Manila Times on September 11 2022. We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks. (

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