Non-alignment to benefit from West Philippine Sea

July 10, 2024

by Sonny Africa

Lee Kwan Yew once described the economic relationship between China and Singapore as an “elephant on one side and a mouse on the other.” The Philippines is seemingly in an even worse situation today in being caught between indisputably dominant imperialist power the United States (US) and its emerging rival China.

The elephant powers doubtless want the Philippines to think it is a mouse to trap us in an enslaving nature metaphor. Yet while enslavement is real, liberation is a matter of choice and struggle.

Non-alignment

The West Philippine Sea (WPS) is famously rich in fisheries, energy and even mineral resources. When it comes to benefiting from these resources the immediate question is how this can happen vis-à-vis China’s expansive claims over the vast South China Sea (SCS) including the WPS. The US is also in the picture but for now it seems more focused on strategic containment of China’s growth, development and expansionism rather than on parochial short-term profits from the WPS.

The answer has to be framed according to a progressive and liberating understanding of independent foreign policy which every president is obliged to adopt anyway because of Article II, Section 7 of the 1987 Constitution: “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.”

The constitutional exhortation has yet to really be made real. The Philippines has been on a trajectory of compromised national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination under every government since the Cory Aquino administration which produced the 1987 Constitution. Neither the long-standing alignment with the US nor the momentary drift to China under the Duterte administration have served the national interest and interests of the Filipino people.

Alignment with either of the major powers has always worked against the Filipino people and non-alignment should be emerging as the runaway better option.

This is very challenging in current conditions. The geopolitical climate is of great power rivalry with more assertive protectionism driven by national security concerns amid global stagnation. Domestically, the polarization of dominant traditional political (aka trapo) factions into opposing US-Marcos and China-Duterte poles has also polarized public sentiment into the one-or-the-other binary.

Economic independence

Asserting non-alignment will need walking on political and economic legs, or combining political-diplomatic measures with measures to strengthen the national economy. In the WPS, there can be mutually reinforcing measures on both fronts.

The legal and diplomatic efforts to assert national sovereignty over the WPS have been most prominent so far. These can still be improved to give greater attention to de-escalating, demilitarization and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Complementary economic measures have not been taken up as much and any discourse today – mirroring the simplistic US-or-China binary – tends to be narrowly framed as a question of yours-or-mine.

The use and exploitation of WPS resources needs to be seen in the context of a larger thrust for national economic independence. This means a larger framework of economic policies that reduces dependence on foreign powers and promotes self-reliant national development. The real meaning of specific measures lies in how they fit into a larger whole.

The 1987 Constitution potentially gives legal basis for more assertive economic policies: “The State shall develop a self-reliant and independent national economy effectively controlled by Filipinos” (Art. II, Sec. 19). However, the dependency-creating neoliberal globalization which started years before the 1987 Constitution has been implemented throughout the charter’s existence. Economic policy and practice have inexorably been in the direction of greater opening up to foreign trade and investment to the detriment of national economic progress.

This has to be corrected. The government needs to first of all make clear strategic choices that are the first steps to an economy that serves the Filipino people: i) national industrialization based on agrarian reform and rural development; and ii) universal social policy. These structural economic changes have to have a democratic character – economic activity that benefits a few, like elite-dominated exploitation of the WPS, does not serve the Filipino people.

The policies to make this strategy real are necessarily expansive, spanning: foreign trade and investment; financial, monetary and fiscal policies; and the vast range of public social and economic services. The principles guiding these policies are critical: self-reliance including independent technological capacity; social justice and equity; and environmental protection.

It is up to the government to create the opportunities to support this strategy including by adjustments in its foreign policy stance.

Economics of WPS

What might this look like in the WPS particularly regarding the use and exploitation of natural resources there? These resources are reportedly vast and maybe even vaster than reported.

Estimates vary but the Department of Energy (DOE) reports up to 12.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 6.2 billion barrels of oil, mostly in the contested Reed Bank at the northeast end of the Spratly Islands. This can provide for over a century of the country’s needs at current consumption rates; high-end resource estimates would provide for over two centuries. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) meanwhile reports that the WPS accounts for some 12% of the country’s total marine fish catch and supports the livelihoods of some 385,000 Filipino fishermen.

Abstracting from the multiplicity of claimants and focusing just on the Philippines and China – and putting a pin on any US involvement in exploration and development – there seem to be three possible scenarios.

The first has either the Philippines or China having exclusive control with one side passively deferring to the other. There are no plausible situations where either side would so easily give up their respective claims though so this scenario is most unlikely.

The second has the Philippines or China aggressively using old-school military force to assert control – whether China on its own account or the Philippines upon the prodding or support of the US according to its own strategy of imperialist aggression. This may happen sooner or later on some pretext or the other, and will only become more likely the more militarized the area becomes and the more belligerently the battle lines are drawn. Public fears of such a catastrophic scenario may be why, according to a recent Pulse Asia poll, Filipinos favor diplomatic solutions such as a code of conduct (64%) and discussions with China (41%).

The third has the Philippines and China creating the conditions for economic partnerships of mutually beneficial trade and investment. If both sides are able to take serious steps to arrest the increasing antagonism in relations, joint development in the WPS can be a tiny constructive step forward. This immediately sends the signal that the Philippines is reinventing its long-standing and recently rejuvenated neocolonial relationship with the US – which is visibly expressed today in hostility towards and distancing from China.

This can be done while pushing within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for greater nationalism and independence from external powers. Most countries in the region have been coerced by external monopoly capital to liberalize since the 1980s and have been deindustrializing ever since; this sets a hard constraint on the level of economic progress their peoples can achieve.

Many probably feel today that they are forced to take sides. A higher level of cooperation and coordination among ASEAN countries can improve collective and individual leverage in transactions with the US and China. The 1971 declaration of the region “as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, free from any form or manner of interference by outside Powers,” recently affirmed at the 43rd ASEAN Summit in September 2023, is a clear starting point.

These national and regional efforts can be considered initial elements of the Philippines seeking more diversified South-South trade and investment relations. The country can find common cause with scores of other underdeveloped countries around the world who will benefit from reducing dependencies on the US and China.

Aggressive neutrality

The Philippines is so desirable for the US and for China because it is a geographically self-standing archipelago with an incomparably strategic location. The country is at the intersection of the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean, straddles vital sea lanes near one of the world’s busiest maritime routes, and is in close proximity to major powers and regional conflicts.

Yet this strategic location can also precisely serve as the solid foundation for non-alignment to either of the big powers, and for something akin to aggressive neutrality that prioritizes the national interest and interests of the Filipino people.

The tensions between the US and China are given, will persist and likely even worsen. The objective conditions causing tension are many and will only mount as the world’s two biggest powers increasingly compete and their interests ever more conflict.

Intensifying rivalry means increasing tension between two forces. In this context, non-alignment is analogous to a tensegrity table, also called a “floating table” – this table achieves stability not from having any supporting legs but from being right in the middle of and balancing constant tension between two forces. Balance with a stable equilibrium is possible but favoring one side collapses the table.

Other countries are perhaps already seeking just such a middle course. Close US security allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for instance joined the China-led balance-of-power rival BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) last year. Even India is not fully on one side and also joined the US’ Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

The Philippines can adopt a posture of non-alignment or even neutrality that visibly gives neither the US nor China an advantage over the other. Non-alignment or neutrality do not mean passivity.

The country can position itself as a mutually favorable buffer zone and use this to negotiate for the most favorable terms for the Philippines in trade deals, investment agreements and official assistance. The US and China can be convinced that it is in neither’s interest to be seen as giving less than the other.

Similarly, other countries in the region with a similar stake in the Philippines becoming a stabilizing buffer between the US and China can be convinced that supporting the Philippines supports regional stability. In a statement released in December 2023, reportedly their first collective position on South China Sea disputes, ASEAN expressed “concern [that] recent developments in the South China Sea [may] undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.”

Coalition-building with other WPS claimants Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei can be pursued. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are also possibilities especially to the extent that they too seek to avoid a descent into armed conflict.

The WPS is currently a major geopolitical flashpoint astride the China-Taiwan tensions, not just regionally but in global terms. This creates an opportunity for the Philippines to build itself up as a stabilizing force in the region. If the Philippines is able to establish enough credibility it may even build itself up as eventually a mediator between China and the US in the region.

Mighty mouse

The disputes on the WPS are complex, embedded in larger geopolitical dynamics and complicated by the vagaries of backward domestic politics. The situation may just become more intractable if the current trajectory is not changed right away. The Philippines is at the literal and metaphorical center of all this so even its incremental steps will go far in shifting the direction the situation takes.

There are a few initial obvious steps to operationalize the shift upon officially declaring a policy of non-alignment: 1) remove the US military presence in the country by shutting down Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites, removing war materiel and expelling troops; 2) remove Chinese coast guard and militia vessels and halting aggressive activities against Filipinos; and 3) pursue mutually beneficial joint development of the WPS according to a framework of economic self-reliance, independence and democracy. The government can ensure public support with an education and communication campaign including about the harm from persistent neocolonial subjugation to foreign powers.

Which is not to say that even just incremental steps will be easy. The Marcos Jr administration has yet to show sufficient imagination or political nerve. It is mainly for progressive forces to build the requisites for resisting pressures to align one way or the other and to make independent economic policy real. There must be more democratic and pro-people governance rid of corrosive corruption and of neocolonial mentality.

The most powerful force for this is mass support from a patriotic public benefiting from economic development, and having a real say in how the country is run. Unfortunately, it’s precisely such forces for democracy that the Marcos Jr administration is trying to put down using repressive legal tools carried over from its predecessor and a relentlessly expanding military and police apparatus.

“Multipolarity” has been a buzz word for many years now. This can be the moment that the Philippines declares that it isn’t a mouse and chooses to be as sovereign a power as the US and China in the community of nations.

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Contribution to the roundtable discussion “The US, China and the Philippines: The View from the Left” held on July 4, 2024.