The Philippines can't copy Vietnam's China policy

The threat China's maritime aggression poses to Philippine interests represents a more clear, present and unavoidable danger than that faced by its neighbors.
Ray Powell | FEBRUARY 6, 2024
The Philippines can't copy Vietnam's China policy

Ray Powell




On Sunday the South China Morning Post ran a column entitled, "Is Vietnam’s restrained approach to maritime issues the key to fewer, muted confrontations with China?" The article goes on to appreciate how Vietnam "has the ability to isolate maritime issues from bilateral ones", and has avoided "high-profile confrontations" despite the intrusion of China Coast Guard patrols into Vietnam's oil and gas fields.

It is certainly true that other South China Sea claimants seem to enjoy a far less rocky relationship with China than the Philippines. As in this article, the analysis of why this is true usually centers on the Philippines' treaty alliance with the U.S. as a chief irritant, while also crediting its neighbors' more reserved and nuanced approaches toward managing relations with Beijing. 

These are important factors worth examining, but no comparative analysis of these countries' South China Sea policies should begin without first examining the very different strategic problems these countries face today. 

The Philippines' current strategic maritime problem is much more acute than its neighbors'.

Yes, Vietnam has historically shed more blood in the South China Sea, but 2024 is neither 1974 nor 1988. Even Vietnam's famous 2014 oil rig standoff with China is nearly a decade in the past, and its confrontations over oil and gas exploration have largely gone quiet since Hanoi abandoned certain exploration efforts around Vanguard Bank.

On the other hand, the Philippines is the only South China Sea claimant with a major Chinese military base located squarely in the middle of its exclusive economic zone. From Mischief Reef, China's maritime forces are able to enforce an increasingly tight blockade around an important but deteriorating Philippine outpost at Second Thomas Shoal. Manila has no choice but to run this blockade every several weeks for troop rotation and resupply missions, and this activity has become the primary focal point for tense confrontations with Chinese forces.

No other South China Sea nation but the Philippines has to routinely run a blockade imposed by a large and still rapidly expanding maritime power. In fact, what other country in the world faces this kind of challenge? 

China's 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal created another unique and acute security problem--this one directly affecting the Philippines' food security and the livelihoods of fishing villages along its northwest coastline. Scarborough Shoal is a very important traditional Philippine fishing ground, which is controlled by China Coast Guard and militia ships. These systematically--and sometimes arbitrarily--restrict Filipino fishing activities to such a degree as to earn a specific rebuke from the 2016 "Philippines v. China" Arbitral Tribunal ruling.

Based on the considerations outlined above, the Tribunal finds that China has, through the operation of its official vessels at Scarborough Shoal from May 2012 onwards, unlawfully prevented Filipino fishermen from engaging in traditional fishing at Scarborough Shoal. [Para. 814]

Moreover, substantial evidence exists to suggest that destructive giant clam harvesting operations are being carried out at Scarborough Shoal, and are causing severe and irreversible damage to the ecosystem.

The point of this is not to minimize the maritime security threats that Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia face with China. I have reported on many occasions about China's direct challenges to these countries' important legal sovereignty rights. 

What I am asserting is that the threat China's maritime aggression poses to Philippine interests represents a more clear, present and unavoidable danger than that faced by its neighbors. That's why Manila can't just copy Hanoi's notes on "bamboo diplomacy".

Ray Powell

Ray is the Director of SeaLight and Project Lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He's a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and was a 2021 Fellow at Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institute.

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