Q and A: How can PH get Mischief Reef back from China?

Carmela Fonbuena

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Q and A: How can PH get Mischief Reef back from China?
Hawaii-based South China Sea expert Alexander Vuving talks to Rappler about fears of a big war erupting in the disputed seas, the role of the Philippines as a 'swing state' between the US and China, and how he thinks President Duterte should manage the dispute moving forward

HAWAII, USA – The international court was unambiguous about China’s illegal occupation of Mischief Reef, an underwater feature that Beijing has reclaimed to host a runway and a missile system, among other structures that neighbors are protesting.

The 2016 landmark ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration said China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines, declaring that Mischief Reef falls within an area that “only the Philippines possesses [with] possible entitlements to maritime zones” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

South China Sea expert Alexander Vuving said there’s a need to talk about the Philippines getting back Mischief Reef.

“It is worth the conversation, at least, because it gives the Philippines more options, because it would give international law some teeth, and because Mischief can be the fulcrum of a strategy to restore equilibrium in the region,” Vuving said. 

One of the Philippine’s experts on the South China Sea, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, has practically given up on this. “China spent billions of dollars putting up those structures and we cannot expect China to just abandon those very expensive reclamations,” Carpio said in a November 23 forum on the South China Sea.

“Right now a lot of people contain themselves within the traditional way of seeing things and forgo these options and China is able to leverage that mindset,” Vuving said.

Vuving is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. He is known for his hawkish views and criticism of how the former administration of US President Barack Obama handled the South China Sea dispute. 

Journalist Carmela Fonbuena spoke with him about issues surrounding the regional flashpoint. Below are excerpts from the interview:

What is your assessment of the situation in the South China Sea?

We have arrived at a new normal, particularly with regard to the structures – the artificial islands that China has built – which cannot be destroyed or rolled back unless there is a big effort by the United States and some of the countries in the region, particularly the Philippines. 

How has this changed the regional security dynamics?

China is now able to dominate the skies and waters of the South China Sea with a myriad of vessels and airplanes using their large outposts in the Spratly Islands as well as the Paracel Islands. Remember, in addition to 7 large artificial islands in the Spratlys, the Paracel Islands are completely occupied by China. 

There are those who say China has won the South China Sea.

The new normal is not set in stone; it can be changed. I think it’s possible for the United States and its allies in the region, particularly if the US and the Philippines join forces to redress the imbalance of the new normal. I’ve outlined the contours of such a strategy in the article titled “How America Can Take Control in the South China Sea” – the title is not mine – in the magazine Foreign Policy on February 13, 2017.

How do you see that happening? They will demolish the artificial islands?

They can neutralize their effects. A key place in this strategy is Mischief Reef, which belongs to the EEZ of the Philippines. In accordance with the Permanent Court of Arbitration rulings of 2016, it’s legal for the Philippines to get it back. A central question in this strategy is, how do you get it without triggering a big war with China? My point is that China won’t let a war at its doorstep go big and that if China can win without firing a bullet, others can also do the same. Gray zone operations similar to what China has employed to get the Scarborough Shoal, but using drones to deny China’s access to the artificial islands, combined with targeted sanctions against individuals and companies involved in China’s illegitimate projects in the South China Sea, are part of such a strategy. From a military planning perspective, China should also have to plan the day when they have to engage in a showdown with the US, Vietnam, the Philippines, or other countries in the South China Sea. I think a part of the plan should be to try to localize the conflict.

What do you mean localize it?

You keep the conflict local. You don’t allow it to spread out to become a bigger conflict. We have seen it in the past when the Chinese clashed with the Vietnamese and seized Paracel Islands and some reefs in the Spratly Islands. There were shooting battles but very localized, very small.

Countries are afraid of third world war erupting in the South China Sea.

War is a possibility in the South China Sea. The question is, how big? The chance for the Third World War is low because the two superpowers, the United States and China, are now living in a world that provides them with more effective and more efficient ways than traditional war to wage their hegemonic contest. The trade war that President Trump is pursuing is one of those. Cyberwar is another. When it comes to the South China Sea, they can either keep their contest to the gray zone below the threshold of an all-out conflict or keep the conflict localized. Remember, the US and the USSR also waged proxy wars rather than engage in direct armed conflict with each other.

What do you think of President Rodrigo Duterte and his proclaimed pivot to China? How do you view the inconsistency of Philippine policies?

I think the inconsistency belongs to the nature of hedging. All the small countries in the region are hedging because they face with uncertainties and so they have to put their eggs in different baskets. But I think President Duterte’s embrace of China comes primarily from his historical experiences with the two great powers, the US and China. He does not trust the US while he thinks he can live with China and he probably believes that the future is China.

You think Duterte is hedging?

He went to China and tried to reconcile with China where he showed he is anti-American from the heart. He also flew to Japan where he praised Japan as the Philippines’ best friend. Then he cozied up to Russian President Putin and traveled to Russia. But he still maintains ties with the United States. He doesn’t play the ASEAN card, but he is playing the big power cards.

You think he’s playing it smart?

I don’t think that his strategy is the right one for the Philippines in the long term, but it has rationale. It tries to maximize benefits by making China and Russia new partners and minimize risks by sidelining the South China Sea disputes. It fits with his anti-Western and anti-American worldview. Duterte certainly feels more comfortable living with China than with the US. He probably thinks that the West Philippine Sea is a lost cause and he aims his strategy at getting the best out of a Chinese-dominant environment. But this is a bad gamble because the Philippines is one of the “swing states” that holds a key in the great power competition between the US and China. If Duterte swings too close to China, he will squander the opportunity to make the world safe for Philippine freedom and prosperity. Also, embracing China carries with it the big risks of debt traps and corruption that go with Chinese investment and weakens the Philippines in the South China Sea. The experience of the Arroyo administration’s pivot to China has shown these risks; the more recent experiences in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Malaysia have only reinforced this. It’s a very delicate balancing act for the Philippines to play as a “swing state.”

What is the danger if this is not balanced properly?

The balancing act consists of moves that go in opposite directions. If balanced properly, the moves complement each other, but if not balanced properly, they will undercut each other. So the swing state can reap maximum benefit from its swinging, but it can also be torn or paralyzed by its own balancing acts.

Hedging is working but it’s not a good strategy. Explain.

Hedging is a good strategy to deal with uncertainty. But there are important things that are not uncertain or are getting more certain. For example, if you’re a small country that has no territorial dispute with China and you don’t need to fear of Chinese encroachment in your territory, then maybe you can allow yourself to cooperate with China to a larger extent. But the Philippines is, as a matter of fact, China’s adversary in the South China Sea as long as you want to maintain your possessions and protect your sovereignty there. If it is certain that China wants to realize its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, if it is certain that China sees its relations with its neighbors as then Foreign Minister and now State Councillor Yang Jiechi said, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that’s just a fact,” than hedging is not a good strategy to deal with these facts.

No one’s talking about taking Mischief Reef back. Do we need to bring the conversation there?

It is worth the conversation, at least, because it gives the Philippines more options, because it would give international law some teeth, and because Mischief can be the fulcrum of a strategy to restore equilibrium in the region. Right now a lot of people contain themselves within the traditional way of seeing things and forgo these options and China is able to leverage that mindset.

Have you been criticized for beating the war drums?

Yes. My critical assessment is different from people who previously said they don’t care about the South China Sea. They say great powers don’t fight over small rocks. But now the small rocks have become big fortresses. – Rappler.com


Carmela Fonbuena took the Advanced Security Cooperation course at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific for Security Studies upon the invitation of the US State Department. Vuving is the course manager. 

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