A choice between the US and China?

The Philippines is in a difficult position in navigating its way between the conflicting self-interests of the two superpowers. But our country should not be hoodwinked into believing that we must choose between China and the US.

Joel Ruiz Butuyan

Joel Ruiz Butuyan

Philippine Daily Inquirer


An aerial view shows the BRP Sierra Madre on the contested Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin, in the South China Sea. PHOTO: PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER

May 3, 2024

MANILA – Two of the world’s superpowers are zealously competing for our affection. There’s China which woes us with promises of peaceful coexistence if we join them in the negotiating table to resolve our conflict in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). There’s the United States which promises to come to our defense if China attacks us militarily. Between the two, whom should we believe? But first, what are at stake for us? If China will have its way, we will lose 500,000 square kilometers of sea territory, which is our western coast’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and which we have named as the WPS. The area is far bigger than the 300,000 sq km combined land area of all our 7,641 islands. We stand to lose our exclusive rights to fish and exploit all marine resources in the area. In fact, an advocacy group estimated in 2021 that as much as 240,000 kilos, or more than 260 tons, are illegally taken daily by Chinese fishing vessels from our EEZ. If we multiply that by 365 days, that’s 94,900 tons of fish that we lose in a year. Juxtapose that with recent reports that we will need to import 25,000 metric tons of fish for the last three months of this year. How much of the imported fish will come from the fish poached by China from our waters? We also stand to lose our exclusive rights to mine 6,203 million barrels of oil and 12.158 billion cubic feet of gas contained in our EEZ, per our government’s estimates.

We had been talking to China for so many years in our earnest attempt to peacefully settle our competing claims. But time and again, China has proven untrustworthy. While its mouth talks of peace, its hands and feet engage in unpeaceful acts. It has perpetrated acts of aggression by building artificial islands for its military forces, preventing our fishermen from fishing, and harassing our military vessels, all inside our EEZ. From our experience, China’s enticement for us to return to the negotiating table is a ruse for us to remain quiet and complacent, while it busies itself solidifying its illegal occupation and exploitation of our EEZ.

On the other hand, there’s the US which has continuously promised to come to our aid in the event of an armed attack by a foreign country like China. But despite our Mutual Defense Treaty, we have not benefited from US assistance in the midst of China’s occupation and acts of aggression in our EEZ. Notwithstanding assurances that the US commitment to aid us is “ironclad,” several of our EEZ shoals and reefs have been occupied by China, our military vessels are attacked with water cannons, our navy personnel are struck with blinding laser lights, and our fishermen’s vessels are rammed and driven away from our EEZ.

Let’s not maintain illusions that the US will come to our aid out of an unselfish intention to help us. The US will come to our aid only if, in doing so, its own selfish interest will coincide with our interest. It’s vested interest include the following: freedom of navigation and overflight over the WPS; defense of Taiwan against an invasion by China, for which it needs a nearby area like the Philippines to preposition its military armament and forces; containment of China’s expanding hold on Asia, and; maintaining its treaty allies’ trust and goodwill, which will be damaged if it does not help the Philippines despite its treaty commitment.

Notwithstanding the rawness of its intentions and its brute ways, China takes pains in anchoring its claim on a veil of rationality (historic claim), and it avoids using conventional military arms (by disguising its ships as coast guard vessels, and by using water cannons and laser lights instead of conventional firepower).

On the other hand, the US predicates its commitment to aid us only if there’s an “armed attack” on our “island territories” and on our “armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft.” It, therefore, implicitly justifies its lack of action, also on a cloak of rationality—China has illegally occupied our waters, but not island territories; and China has not resorted to an “armed attack” because it has not used traditional military armament.

The Philippines is in a difficult position in navigating its way between the conflicting self-interests of the two superpowers. But our country should not be hoodwinked into believing that we must choose between China and the US. We must assert our own interest by countering the slivers of rationality that China depends on, and by defying and countering China’s use of nonconventional arms. We must ensure that when the US piggybacks its self-interest on ours, it must be on terms that will advance our country’s interest and not require our country to assume risks that are unnecessary for our interest. Therein lies the correct choice—the Philippines’ own interest.

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