West Philippine Sea

[ANALYSIS] BRP Sierra Madre and the complexities of geopolitics in the West Philippine Sea

Antonio Trillanes IV

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[ANALYSIS] BRP Sierra Madre and the complexities of geopolitics in the West Philippine Sea

Nico Villarete/Rappler

'If the US and the other allied countries are not prepared for an escalation of tensions in the WPS, then they would surely discourage us from pursuing aggressive options'

Let me start by saying that all policy options to protect Philippine territorial integrity and national interests should be on the table, regardless of whether these may cause the escalation of tensions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) or not. However, the more “aggressive” options should only be resorted to with the consent of the alliance, specifically the United States, since it is the acknowledged primary source of strength of our country in facing China in the WPS. 

If the allied countries declare that they would support us if, let’s say we send gray ships to resupply and refurbish BRP Sierra Madre, then by all means let’s do so; or they may even offer that they would escort our ships in doing the resupply missions. But if they discourage us from pursuing options that could escalate tensions in the WPS, then it would be up to President Bongbong Marcos to decide if he would want to go at it alone in a likely standoff with China. 

In a worst case scenario of a miscalculation by either side that leads to a shooting or sinking incident, the US, thru the Mutual Defense Treaty, would be compelled to intervene anyway, so we might as well consult with them beforehand so they could make the necessary contingency plans. Bottom line is, if the US and the other allied countries are not prepared for an escalation of tensions in the WPS, then they would surely discourage us from pursuing aggressive options.

To illustrate, back in 2012 during the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough) standoff, our country was locked in an intense staring contest with China. Our three Philippine Coast Guard ships were valiantly holding their ground against 80 to 100 vessels (Chinese Coast Guard or CCG ships, fishing boats, and dinghies) inside and around the shoal. The tensions were escalating by the day and there were actual risks of an armed conflict, but President Benigno Aquino III was willing to maintain the standoff for as long as necessary to protect our territory. 

However, around four senior US officials (not US Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell) made separate personal visits to PNoy and his Cabinet in Malacañang to “recommend” to him to de-escalate the situation in Panatag. Thus, PNoy was faced with the prospects of either continuing with the prolonged standoff without US support or de-escalate as suggested by our allies. It is highly probable that similar messages were articulated to Japan by the US in their own Senkaku standoff that was happening at around the same time. 

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Ultimately, the mission given to me by PNoy during the backchannel negotiations was to de-escalate the situation without discussing our sovereignty claims over Panatag Shoal, since our position was firm that our claim was undisputed.

It is easy to understand back then why the US wanted us to de-escalate. First, they had upcoming elections in November 2012 and the Obama administration didn’t want to risk having any shooting incident in the WPS as an issue that could affect its election standings. Second, the US then was focused on trying to contain the Middle East conflicts and couldn’t afford to open a new front. Third, the US foreign policy back then allowed the “peaceful rise” of China and viewed it only as an economic partner/rival. Fourth, the US naval forces couldn’t sustain logistical support in any conflict in the WPS because their nearest base is in Guam.

Fortunately, the China back in 2012 was also different from the China today, which is why it also wanted to de-escalate the Panatag standoff. First, their president then was Hu Jintao, who is largely perceived as a moderate. Second, China, like the US, was also scheduled to have a change in leadership in November 2012 and the Hu Jintao regime didn’t want the Panatag standoff to be used by the rival Jiang Zemin/Bo Xilai faction at that critical time. Third, most of China’s island bases in the Spratlys were not even constructed yet. 

These geopolitical factors enabled the backchannel negotiations that resulted in the successful de-escalation of the Panatag Shoal standoff with the pullout of around 80 to 97 Chinese vessels in and around the shoal with only three CCG ships remaining outside the shoal. More importantly, to this day, there is no Chinese reclamation in Panatag Shoal (ultimately, China’s refusal to remove the remaining three CCG ships became the reason why PNoy filed the arbitration case).

However, the geopolitical environment has drastically changed since 2012. First, the US foreign policy changed in 2017 to reclassify China as a threat to US national security. Second, there is no more Middle East front and the US naval forces have already repositioned in East Asia. Third, the EDCA bases may soon be operational to support any upsurge in US forces’ operations. Fourth, there is global support against authoritarianism and Chinese expansionism. In sum, the US may not have the same pacifist outlook that it had in 2012.

On the Chinese side, there are changes as well. First, Xi Jinping is no moderate like Hu Jintao. He believes that it is time for China to rise and restore its glory after its “100 years of shame.” Second, their island bases in the Spratlys are now fully operational. Third, the Chinese PLA believes that it can stand up to the US, militarily. Fourth, China views the EDCA bases as a threat against their own plans for Taiwan and the WPS. In sum, the China of 2023 is much more belligerent than it was a decade ago.

In conclusion, these prevailing complex geopolitical factors must be carefully considered in any policy options regarding the resupply missions and maintenance of BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal, and the conduct of operations in the WPS in general. – Rappler.com

Antonio Trillanes IV is Professor of Praxis, Ateneo School of Government.

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