Philippines: Okinawa's next conflict?

(To Gino Lanzara)

An important part of the changes involving the general geopolitical panorama of the last 20 years concerns the relations between the center and the periphery or, according to a more recent internationalist interpretation, the relations between hegemonic powers and global south. Under the pressure of the partial US decline, if on the one hand Sino-Russian dynamism has increased, on the other the countries of the global south have turned towards significant political, economic and diplomatic opportunism, confirming a trend which, while not ignoring the bipolarisation of the system, leads to the observation of an increasingly widespread free-hand policy or, if one prefers, the multi alignment, that of multidimensional partnerships capable of ensuring variable and contingent interests.

The great game therefore develops in a two-way way in the global hegemonic support for local instances that take advantage of wider-ranging policies, emphasizing an anarchy which draws its cue both from the incoherent alignment of global issues with local ones, and from historical reminiscences, such as the Japanese ones in the Indo Pacific which, at least for the moment, hinder the formation of durable political-military alliances.

The Philippines is an economically developing country, strategically inserted in the bezel of a dynamic region, which associates concrete growth opportunities with evident structural limits made more complex by the archipelagic nature1 which requires the security of the SLOC (Sea Lines Of Communication), which highlights problems of connectivity, border permeability, maritime disputes. Manila must therefore face endogenous crises, determined both by extremist insurgences and by the latent danger represented by the Jihad Islamic2, and exogenous, triggered by Chinese assertiveness due to the consequent frictions with Washington in the South China Sea, a context that induces both an arms race and the securing of access to marine resources.

As early as 2018, the Philippines announced an unprecedented quantitative and qualitative increase in the Navy and Air Force, aimed at protecting the national territory and the EEZ, with an increase in the budget of at least 2% of GDP after a period characterized by a marked countertrend. After all, it is inevitable for Asean3 and the Philippines having to juggle an aggressive trading partner China and theinstitutional American presence, both interpreters of a competition ready to flare up in the eastern Philippine Sea.

The problem is deeper than it appears, given that the desired American freedom of navigation in the area is not accompanied by an analogous and broad economic dimension, especially after the withdrawal from the Tpp4, a dimension instead supported by Beijing with the geopolitical projection of the BRI which however does not cancel the dispute connected to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, near which large hydrocarbon resources have been found, in a strategic area for the control of the routes from and for the Strait of Malacca.

Economically, after the 2020 contraction5, the Philippine economy rebounded by 5,7% at the end of 2021, and by 7,8% in the first half of 2022 thanks to domestic demand and private investments, with an increase in inflation correlated to the cost of raw materials , and with a prospect of a slowdown in GDP, due to the general uncertainty of the moment which requires Manila to carry out structural reforms also in the light of the increase in interest rates. Recently the IMF, responding to a request from the Central Bank of the Philippines (BSP), provided assistance in finding regulatory gaps, aiming at optimizing the political-economic initiative and at implementing a regulation in synergy with the industrial sector. However, it should be remembered that, according to a report by the World Bank, only 50% of the population holds 14% of the national wealth, and that strong social inequalities persist which nullify good economic performance.

Particular attention should then be paid to workers abroad, the Overseas Filipino Worker, that with their remittances they reach 33 billion dollars, a sum equal to 10% of GDP; developing better migratory integration with Beijing could have facilitated Manila only in the short term given that remittances contribute to the procurement of hard currency (dollars) essential for maintaining financial stability supported by the link with the USA which facilitates Western investments, but at the same time favors a marked vulnerability.

The area is not immune to jihadism; Islamic extremism threatens Asia, supported by economic difficulties, corruption, social fragmentation which have contributed to the emergence of currents linked to Al Qaeda andIsis. Globalization has given new ideas to extremisms which, synergistically with the independence fault points, have become the sing of terrorism, such as in the southern Philippines, between Mindanao and Marawi, which in 2017 was the subject of extremely harsh clashes.

Politically, after the Duterte presidency, which clumsily and too late attempted to resume relations with the USA, the Philippines witnessed the return of the Marcos family, representatives of a medium power with limited capacity for initiative. Marcos' return to US relations was not a surprising decision. Indeed, the final stretch of Duterte's mandate had already made clear the failure of pro-China policies.

In addition to the economy and the climate, regional interests are turning towards the need for security, guaranteed by the renewed presence of Washington which, realistically, has granted diplomatic immunity to Marcos Jr, despite the pending disputes against him in the USA.

Pragmatically, the United States needs an aligned, stable Philippine archipelago in the context of strategic competition with China. Very carefully, Marcos reaffirmed Philippine territorial sovereignty over the disputed islands6 with China, however, not going beyond aspects of ordinary administration in the light of the fact that Beijing refuses to comply with specific arbitral awards. The intention to engage Beijing in a broader dialogue without, however, conceding too much seems evident, as improvidently done by Rodrigo Duterte, however still politically represented, and presumably protected7, by Vice President Sara Duterte. The negotiations attempted by Rodrigo Duterte to mitigate frictions over Chinese claims to atolls and islets8 in the vicinity of the Philippine islands of Palawan and Luzon in the South China Sea, did not avoid or various nuisance actions9 to the detriment of Filipino fishermen nor the construction of artificial installations so as to lead to a dispute before the Permanent Arbitration Court of the Hague that10, on the basis of the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has established the territorial sovereignty of Manila over the atolls themselves as parts of the Philippine EEZ. Duterte, however, preferred not to enforce the sentence by favoring an asymmetric bilateral dialogue without equal aspects, given that China can afford to keep economic negotiations open without renouncing control of the atolls, encouraging any initiative that can maintain the status quo without conceding Nothing.

What matters now are the lack of political direction of the Marcos administration, with international relations substantially absent from its electoral campaign, although continuity in relations with Washington is expected to continue11, which not surprisingly were followed by tensions and disruptive actions by Beijing. finished theAppeasement towards the Chinese, it will be essential to find new solutions that also involve the other countries put at risk by Chinese expansionism, not least, since 1996, Taiwan, a possible inspiration for an invasion similar to the Ukrainian one, which is no more than 160 miles from the Luzon region of the Philippines.

If Beijing and Taipei were to conflict, the Philippines could not escape the consequences. It is no coincidence that Marcos Jr. declared that the four military bases included in the Enhanced Cooperation Agreement with the USA (EDCA12) will be deployed up to the province of Palawan, close to the South China Sea13 with the inevitable regional strategic implications. If EDCA were extended to include some bases facing Taiwan, the latter would become one of the most important American strategic elements, unique in security initiatives with the USA at the center14, represented by Secretary of State Blinken, who intends to normalize relations made otherwise unstable by the Duterte Presidency.

The competition between China and the US, engaged in conducting repeated FONOP15, worries Manila: while an American departure would leave the Philippines without defensive capabilities, the Archipelago is trying to create a perimeter of regional alliances alternative to dependence on the USA in light of the fact that it is essential for Beijing to have unlimited access to the Pacific, given that it is an exporting power and that its position relative to Taiwan and the Philippines makes it vulnerable to a US blockade. This has created two possibilities for China: face a naval confrontation with the USA: shift focus to the Philippines, however risking undermining international positions and internal posture.

Manila retains a key tactical role in the regional arena, given that the ability geographical counterattack that the Philippines offers to the USA is superior to that of Okinawa or Thailand16.

However, the strategic change could only be the beginning of wider changes, with the presence of Japan17, South Korea, Singapore, India18 and Australia, and the end of Marcos' mandate by 2027; note the interest of Paris, which controls New Caledonia, Wallis, Fortuna, Guyana, in ensuring the modernization of the Philippine Navy thanks to a partnership that facilitates the purchase of transalpine equipment, also in the light of its Indo-Pacific StrategyHaving declined the opportunity to supply submarines to the Australian Navy, Paris tried to turn to other small and medium-sized powers to assert its regional presence. 

It is worth noting how the Philippines, albeit with reduced budgets, need to strengthen their Navy to ensure a minimum patrol capacity and area deterrence, and how two European countries have advanced their participation in the enhancement projects: France and Sweden19, which have technologies and know-how suitable, however useful for diversifying American supplies. It remains to be seen whether the promises will materialize into effective commitments, even in the consideration that the European powers show that they do not want to remain in a position distant from that of the Indo-Pacific events.

The countries bordering the South China Sea generally remain unstable from an internal political point of view, while from a strategic point of view it is possible to verify how the possibility of oscillation between the interests of the hegemonic superpowers narrows according to the geographical position; this leads us to consider how the geographical proximity to China drastically increases the risks of this oscillation, characterizing from time to time ambivalent policies (Malaysia and Singapore) and strategic debacles.

The Philippines is in the most difficult geographical position, with the Palawan archipelago in the South China Sea with the northern coast of Luzon which, as the largest and most economically active island, as well as hosting the capital Manila, points north towards Taiwan but is fronted by natural and artificial islands controlled by Beijing.

The Philippine problem has consisted, in recent years, in having provided uncoordinated responses influenced by anti-colonialist and nationalistic rhetoric that have oscillated between the closure of US military bases in 1992 and the predominance of the prerogatives and interests of the elites over national interests. The passage between Benigno Aquino's pro-American policy and theAppeasement Chinese thread by Rodrigo Duterte. While openly siding with the US raises the odds of getting involved in a conflict, the price Beijing is asking proves too high, not to mention the instability around Taiwan which requires a protective umbrella that only the US , with minimal credible deterrence, they are able to ensure; in short, two fronts that are difficult to sustain.

Therefore, the modernization of the Philippine armed forces is necessary; while the US can uphold deterrence capabilities, it is up to Manila to enforce its sovereignty both by increasing its ability to prevent hostile actions and by influencing Beijing's decision-making process.

In this context the Navy assumes a significant role; An extremely complex and technological weapon, Manila has also rediscovered its importance by aiming for new installations by the South Korean Hyundai Heavy Industries plants with two HDC-3100 corvettes20 o 3.100-ton light multi-purpose frigates, which will form the backbone of the Philippine Navy; to remember in this context the MBDA missiles Mistral 3 (SAM) which are part of the acquisition project assigned to MBDA Missile Systems.

Of note is the commissioning of interdiction and rapid attack units fitted out in Israel by Israel Shipyard Limited, known as Shaldag Mark V. The units will form the Littoral Combat Force which will have the task of protecting the internal SLOCs of the Philippine archipelago.

1More than 7.000 islands with a maritime border exceeding 36.000 kilometers.

2 Stability has been jeopardized by the presence of numerous armed groups: New People's Army, Rajah Solaiman, the Qaedist Abu Sayyaf.

3 As of WEO April 2023, ASEAN-5 comprises the five founding member countries of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations): Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

4 Trans Pacific Partnership

5 Rising Asian debt increased regional exposure to rising interest rates and heightened market volatility. The region's debt is above pre-global financial crisis levels. While we expect Asian growth to hold up, central banks could keep rates higher for longer to contain inflation by tightening financial conditions. China, India and Thailand had concentrations of corporate debt in firms with interest coverage rates below one with high default susceptibility. The Philippines, Malaysia and Hong Kong had large holdings of debt in companies with coverage ratios just above one, potentially susceptible to default as borrowing costs rose.

6 Spratly

7 See human rights violations and extrajudicial executions during the so-called drug war

8 Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal; Militarily, control of Spratlys, Paracels and other archipelagos will allow Beijing to directly threaten islands garrisoned by US and Japanese forces that stretch from Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines and would close Beijing's fleet access to the Pacific Ocean.

9 It should be remembered that Beijing has already fought on two occasions for control of the South China Sea: 1974, battle for the Paracels Islands, between China and Vietnam and ended with a Chinese victory which established de facto control over the archipelago; 1988 Battle for the Spratly Islands, during which the Chinese Navy sank a Vietnamese transport ship while offloading troops.

10 According to the Court, China has no historic right to the South China Sea and the arbitrary construction of infrastructure and atolls constitutes a violation of international law. China has therefore violated the rights and national sovereignty of the Philippines The decision of the Tribunal of the Sea based on the Unclos signed by the Chinese in 1996, should be binding even in the absence of instruments to enforce the decision.

11 The Philippines is one of the countries in the US alliance network in the Pacific, called San Francisco system

12 signed in 2014 in response to incidents at sea between the Chinese Coast Guard and Philippine vessels, as well as the construction of artificial installations in Manila's Exclusive Economic Zone.

13 According to Philippine sources, the US has requested access to bases in Isabela, Zambales and Cagayan, in the island of Luzon, facing north towards Taiwan, and one in Palawan, in the south-western Philippines, not far from Spratly Atoll .

14 The exercises Balikatan (“shoulder to shoulder” in Tagalog) between the Philippines and the US has always been an indicator of the status of the 1951 alliance in which the Philippines was integrated into the San Francisco System, or hub and spokes. The perception of a threat to maritime sovereignty by China and the absence of reassurances about the territorial disputes in the South China Sea pushed the Marcos Jr. government towards the umbrella offered by Washington. The drills were seen as war games seafarers to test the Philippine use of new missile frigates, Korean FA-50 fighters, helicopter gunships, with Philippine tests of mobile artillery pieces including the Howitzer 101 and 155mm, and American tests of HIMARS systems, Patriot, Avenger and M29.

15 Freedom of Navigation Operations 

16 Diane A. Desierto, Professor of Law and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Gregory B. Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, also highlighted Manila's interest in Taiwan due to the presence of nearly 200 Filipinos on the island

17 A military supply contract was signed for an anti-aircraft radar defense system from Mitsubishi Corp

18 In 2022 the purchase of supersonic missiles produced by the Indian company BrahMos was finalized through an intergovernmental agreement with India (so-called Government-to-Government Agreements or G2G) worth approximately $370 million. This investment is part of the modernization program to have minimal deterrent capabilities by 2028. The reasons why the Brahmos is relevant are tactical and strategic, given that the missile has a range that would allow it to reach installations on the islet of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, making a Chinese installation in the area vulnerable. Interestingly, this is a non-American system, whereby India steps in as a partner in containing Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. 

19 A Philippine military delegation to Sweden acquired news of the Saab 2000global AEW&C and GlobalEye radar surveillance and early warning aircraft equipped with Erieye radar as well as the Gripen C/D fighter-bomber that Stockholm could replace with the more powerful Gripen E/F version. The Philippines, interested in setting up a squadron of supersonic fighter bombers, is evaluating the purchase of the Swedish aircraft or the American F-16, as well as upgrading the line of Korean FA-50s.

20 The HDC-3100 will have a length of 116 metres, a beam of 14,9 meters and a draft of 3,7 metres, a CODAD (Combined Diesel And Diesel) architecture with 4 diesel engines for a maximum speed of approximately 25 knots and a range of 4500 miles at 15 knots. Hanwha Systems Naval Shield command and control system connected to the Israeli-made IAI-ELTA EL/M-2258 ALPHA 3D electronically scanned multifunction radar (AESA) and connected to the IFF system; active/passive hull low-medium frequency sonar, towed sonar array, Hensoldt SharpEye Mk11 surface search and navigation radar and to data links 16 for air operations and 22 for sea operations as well as installed electronic warfare and protection systems. Armament: 1 Leonardo 76/62 mm gun, 1 35 mm CIWS, 4 12,7 mm heavy machine guns, 2 triple 324 mm torpedo launchers, a 16-cell vertical launch system (VLS) and 2 quadruple missile launchers antiship.

Photo: US Navy / Google Earth