Manila's Balancing Act
Image Credit: US Embassy, Manila

Manila's Balancing Act


Rising tensions over competing claims in the South China Sea have raised a new set of foreign policy challenges for the administration of Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

China’s increasingly aggressive posturing, especially among elements of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, has exacerbated the Philippines’ deepening sense of vulnerability. In light of this emerging security dilemma, Manila faces three challenges: (1) balancing bilateral relations with China and the United States without being forced to choose between the two; (2) ensuring that the multilateral track, primarily through the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, functions effectively as a tool for managing, if not resolving, territorial disputes; and (3) crafting a coherent diplomatic strategy while developing a military ‘minimum deterrent.’

Since last year, China’s increasingly tough rhetoric has prompted the Philippines to seemingly hedge its bets by further tilting toward the United States. Given the huge military asymmetry between Manila and Beijing, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Philippines will increasingly seek to leverage its ties with the United States to deter Chinese aggression.

China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, meanwhile, has been extremely sensitive to the region’s balance of power, and the country’s military truculence in the region has grown with the military disengagement of the Soviet Union and the United States. The Mischief Reef incident in 1994, when China started building structures on stilts in the area when the Philippines Navy had withdrawn for monsoon season, underscored to Manila that the withdrawal of US bases was encouraging Chinese expansionism. In response, by 1999, the so-called Visiting Forces Agreement facilitated the re-establishment of a US military presence in the country. The post-9/11 ‘War on Terror,’ meanwhile, allowed the United States to further intensify its military operation within the Philippines. As a result, the United States has remained the country’s most important politico-security partner.

Yet, China is also emerging as one of the Philippines’ major diplomatic-economic partners. China is one of the country’s biggest trade partners, and the Aquino administration is fully aware of how important China is to the country’s goal of tackling acute domestic economic woes, from infrastructure development to capital provision. Indeed, over the past decade, the primacy of economic considerations has encouraged Filipino leaders from Gloria Arroyo to Aquino to cultivate strong ties with the emerging global economic powerhouse that is China.

Ultimately, what the Aquino administration wants is to deter China’s military aggression, primarily through a US security guarantee, without jeopardizing booming economic ties with the mainland. This is a delicate balancing act, and a daunting task for any government, but Aquino’s recent visit to China signalled the potential for de-escalation and the revitalization of economic ties.

Ideally, the Philippines would have been able to rely primarily on regional multilateral institutions rather than major powers. The problem is that ASEAN’s efficacy is questionable, for two main reasons. First, there’s a lack of internal consensus on the South China Sea issue, not least because its members have varyingly close ties with either China or the United States. Second, ASEAN is a ‘soft’ institution that has so far been more effective at confidence-building and preventive diplomacy than conflict management. For example, the 2002 Declaration of Conduct is fundamentally a declaratory statement that lacks binding provisions to deter conflicting parties from engaging in belligerent acts. So far, renewed tensions have encouraged ASEAN to develop guidelines for the Declaration. However, there’s no indication of any movement towards an effective and binding code of conduct to manage the dispute. In the absence of such a regime, the ASEAN track is more about moral suasion than finding lasting political-legal resolution of conflicts.

The Philippine foreign policy bureaucracy also faces challenges. The bulk of the bureaucracy is focused on foreign economic policy and issues tied to the protection of migrant Filipino workers around the world. Ministry personnel are overstretched, while budget allocations don’t match the seriousness of their responsibilities. Meanwhile, the country’s army is underfunded, under-equipped, and is primarily oriented towards domestic security threats.  All this means that at present, the Philippines is yet to develop a credible ‘minimum deterrent’ to ensure its maritime security.

Aware of the challenges the bureaucracy has in helping develop a robust response over the South China Sea, legislators and civil society organizations have pressed the government to be more decisive. Early this year, for example, a Filipino legislator, Walden Bello, pushed for a House resolution to rename the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea, in an amusing attempt to undercut China’s ‘historical’ claims of ownership. Both the military and the foreign affairs bureaucracy welcomed the move.

In late July, a congressional delegation led by Bello visited one of the largest of the disputed Spratly islands, Pag-Asa Island, on a so-called peace and sovereignty mission. The group expressed its support for the Philippines’ claim in the area, while advocating a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, a reflection of how seriously the public is taking the issue.

The pressure is therefore now on the Aquino administration to manage tensions in the region without compromising economic linkages and security relations with either the United States or China.

Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among others. He was a participant in the first Manila Conference on the South China Sea. 

May 4, 2012 at 02:32

Obviously China is firm on their claim to Spratly and cannot be sweyad. They are even contemplating in giving lesson to other countries like the Philippines or Vietnam just to show that they have the full right in claiming Spratly. Unless our government move fast to protect its claim and interest on that island, China will defy any claim by other countries and invade the island itself in the near future.

Ams'trong Sulu
November 14, 2011 at 08:18

the volcano may irrupt if all country in the world have known the secret conspiracy
made by evolutionist. and the lava well affect to all country made interest to the wealth and land property of the sultanate of Sulu. then (just suggesting) better return to the true owner THE SULTANATE OF SULU.

Samad PTI
November 14, 2011 at 08:06

No Party Can be Prejudice Concerning the Right of Spratly Island under Sulu economic Zone, until finally resolve by the international court of justice.
Sulu Never be part of Philippines, China, Malaysia and other country in Asea. Sulu
have her own government the Sultanate of Sulu. Such foreign claim by China and the Philippines are international scandal.

October 15, 2011 at 18:10

@John X. No worries. Thanks.

October 15, 2011 at 15:57

its a right tactic if we go to US then china will harrass if we go to china US will sent CIA and destroy our country if we go to ASEAN and built a defence treaty I think is is much better~!

John X
October 13, 2011 at 16:38

good point.

John X
October 13, 2011 at 16:30

Ozvian, that last comment wasn’t aimed at you. You seem to be one of the wise commentators on here at times or at least you are willing to accept certain ideas.

Personally, I feel the movie the Green Line, the dramas ‘Band of Brothers, Pacific’ would put people off war, but I guess its human nature to want to kill others. I have read the autobiographies of certain people in a number of wars and realistically, ‘War Sucks’.

Though, I will defend my ideology of peace and good relations, even if it means that I have to fight for it. Nazi Germany, Imperialist Japan, Communist Soviet Union and Maoist China all promoted ideas and actions that needed to be fought against.


Though, it doesn’t mean that we need to adopt those ideas today. You can have good people following bad rules, history has shown us that, though most of the good ones died fighting against them. Being rich does not make you right, it just means you have more money to spend on stupid actions. We can all fins examples of those countries who do the same today.

John X
October 13, 2011 at 16:11

Technically, no one is 100% sure of how much oil or gas exists in the region. My lecturer in 1998 was doing a paper on it, I am not sure of his results, but other readings/studies showed it was not that great.

Though we do know, that the South China Sea due to its shallowness is a dangerous place for submarines. We also know that China has a submarine base on Hainan Island, so its not suprising that they wish for a closed area in the South China Sea.

Though, if they are just worried about links to oil and gas bearing regions of the world then some of thier actions are more problematic than helpful. If they block off the South China Sea and India blocks off the Indian Ocean and Australia blocks off the Tasman Sea, all based on names. Well, then travel becomes very complicated for most of Asia and China especially.

I no longer really listen to certain posters as they seem to have a real lack of understanding, but the Philippines means more to people then just the Filipinos and they have a vote in thier countries elections, so it would be remiss of China to think that the Philippines has no friends simply because it is small.

October 11, 2011 at 07:02

BTW, in that article, China Plays Nationalism Card, both me Ozivan88 & @Observer had an early numerous ugly exchanges, which towards the end was concluded fairly amicably that he is to cease using insults on ancestors.

Now he is back again with insulting his opponents’ helpless dead ancestors.

Bloggers, please judge for yourself whether I am right to be disgusted with his indiscretion.

PS: Please do not mistaken @The_Observer (the good, responsible blogger) from @Observer (The rogue blogger)

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