By Li Kaisheng
Many extraterritorial countries have flocked to the South China Sea in recent times. In November, the waters saw several bilateral and multilateral military operations, including the KAMANDAG 7 joint exercise among the US, the Philippines, Japan, and the ROK, followed by US-Philippines and Australia-Philippines joint patrols. On December 2, French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu signed a letter of intent to promote bilateral defense cooperation with the host during his visit to the Philippines. Prior to this, Japan and the Philippines also negotiated several times on the conclusion of the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) to allow mutual deployment of troops.
Whether joint patrols or discussions on mutual deployment of troops, these actions have gone beyond normal defense cooperation, which took place amidst the unprecedented complex geopolitical changes in the South China Sea for these years.
First, the Philippines has significantly increased its involvement in this region, constantly hyping up the South China Sea issue on the pretext of replenishment to the warship illegally grounded on Ren'ai Jiao. Second, negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea have entered the third reading stage, involving more intense geopolitical gaming over the concerns and interests of all parties. Last, the US is dedicated to managing bilateral relations with China, while, on the other hand, stepping up its use of the South China Sea and other issues to contain China.
These intertwined extraterritorial nations hail from diverse continents but share a common trait -- being military allies of the US. To maintain hegemony and suppress opponents by harnessing the alliance partner system is the internal logic of the US pragmatic diplomacy, especially for the Biden administration.
The missing of realism and balance in the Philippine policies is certainly another significant factor contributing to the current situation. It should be noted that the Philippines, being a country positioned at the epicenter of geopolitical conflicts, has inherent limitations in terms of national strength. Nevertheless, it is all the more crucial for the nation to exercise rationality and prudence in foreign policies.
Generally, ASEAN has always upheld a strategy of balancing between major countries. In the face of the US pressure to step up containment on China, most ASEAN countries maintain a stance of not taking sides, becoming a positive force for safeguarding regional stability. After coming into power, the Marcos government declared the approach of "Friend to all, enemy to none," but had been drifting further from this inclination lately. It should be recognized by the Philippines that coaxing extraterritorial powers to strut in borrowed plumes may be a bit of wit but will probably bring serious consequences for the regional security situation.
First, the sovereignty disputes risk evolving into geopolitical conflicts. Sovereignty contradictions are not uncommon among countries, which should be resolved through peaceful negotiations and consultations. However, if nations within and outside the region succumb to the US will, the South China Sea disputes will no longer be centered around sovereign entitlement but geopolitical gaming. Amidst the fierce whirlpool of geopolitical disputes, regional countries' expectation to benefit from the backing of major powers will prove futile but more likely to result in becoming a tool or even victims of the great power gaming.
Second, regional stability will become more difficult to achieve with meddling by extraterritorial forces. These countries outside the region are unlikely to have a genuine concern for the interests of nations within the region, who actually have stake in regional stability and peace. The introduction of various extraterritorial forces will also bring their own interests and concerns into the region, which will lead to more complicated situation and even sacrifice of common regional interests to the will of extraterritorial countries. At present, the negotiations on the COC in the South China Sea have reached the point of facing a hard nut to crack, when the efforts to secure regional stability may ultimately come to naught if some regional countries fail to talk wholeheartedly due to external interference.
Finally, the integrity and centrality of ASEAN will be undermined and crippled. Amid the current intricate geopolitical situations, maintaining the ASEAN centrality is the key to achieving regional peace and stability, which demands ensuring the foreign and security policy consistency of the alliance. However, the current various interactions of the Philippines with extraterritorial countries make the diplomatic approaches of ASEAN disintegrated and splintered and might eventually deprive the alliance of significance in the eyes of the relevant countries.
Therefore, both external countries and the Philippines should swiftly put an end to such behaviors that undermine regional security. The security and stability of the South China Sea are not on the radar of extraterritorial nations but are inextricably linked to China's interests, so China will not tolerate such kinds of interference going unchecked. As for the Philippines, if acting from the perspective of its true national interests, it will find that what the troops or warships of powers outside the region bring is merely a superficial sense of relief while causing actual trouble.
(The author is a researcher and deputy dean of Shanghai Institutions for International Studies)
Editor's note: Originally published on huanqiu.com, this article is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn.