Manila must abide by its commitments and not internationalize disputes
A Chinese coast guard ship and a Philippine navy vessel near the South China Sea, August 5, 2023. /CFP
A Chinese coast guard ship and a Philippine navy vessel near the South China Sea, August 5, 2023. /CFP

A Chinese coast guard ship and a Philippine navy vessel near the South China Sea, August 5, 2023. /CFP

Editor's note: Andrew Korybko, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is a Moscow-based American political analyst. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The Philippines provoked an incident in the South China Sea on August 5 near the Ren'ai Jiao, which is part of China's Nansha Islands. In 1999, the archipelago nation illegally grounded one of its warships there and has since stationed a small force on this structure to maintain its presence. It was the Philippines' attempt to smuggle building materials for repairing and reinforcing that object under the cover of life supplies that sparked the latest incident.

Manila's unilateral move was in violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea. This illegally grounded warship was supposed to have been removed long ago, yet it remains in the reef and is now clandestinely being built up into an unofficial permanent military base, the development of which will further impede already difficult efforts to peacefully settle its dispute with China. This provocation is serious enough, but it's even worse that the U.S. decided to meddle in it.

After China exercised its legally enshrined right to self-defense by utilizing tactical maneuvers and water cannons as a last resort to stop the Philippines' illegal operation, the U.S. State Department released a statement declaring that "the United States reaffirms an armed attack on Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces – including those of its Coast Guard in the South China Sea – would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S. Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty."

This rhetoric is very dangerous since it could lead to a China-U.S. conflict by miscalculation, which Washington is well aware of, but it might cynically want to manufacture a regional security crisis in an attempt to advance its hegemonic aims in Asia. To explain, some American policymakers have once again begun fearmongering about China ahead of the fall 2024 national elections and demanding its "containment," while others still remain committed to "containing" Russia.

No genuine pro-peace faction exists in the U.S.'s permanent policymaking bureaucracy, which is divided between anti-Chinese and anti-Russian hawks, who are engaged in a zero-sum competition. While they'll never admit that it's impossible to "contain" either of those two, they're still convinced that their country can "contain" one of them, and they compete with each other over which Eurasian front the U.S.'s finite resources should be devoted towards in pursuit of this end.

The Western Eurasian one has been prioritized since the start of Russia's special operation in Ukraine in February 2022, but this "containment" campaign failed in spite of the Washington Post recently reporting that a whopping $66 billion has been committed to this cause since then. They contextualized this figure by informing their audience that it's "a massive investment in a U.S. ally not seen since at least World War II."

A rusted-out World War II Philippine warship
A rusted-out World War II Philippine warship "grounded" on Ren'ai Jiao for over 20 years. /Xinhua

A rusted-out World War II Philippine warship "grounded" on Ren'ai Jiao for over 20 years. /Xinhua

Accordingly, there's been increasing talk in Western media and informally among some of their officials regarding unconfirmed reports about ceasefire talks commencing sometime later this year or early next year once the winter seasons force Kyiv to stop its troubled counteroffensive. This scenario is reasonable since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which some nowadays consider to be a NATO-Russia proxy war, has reached a stalemate. It therefore makes sense to silence the guns as soon as possible.

Should there be any tangible progress in that direction, then it could influence the dynamics of the zero-sum competition between the U.S.'s anti-Chinese and anti-Russian hawks, the first of whom might exploit this to refocus their country's "containment" efforts towards China after the second's campaign failed. This analysis enables one to reconceptualize the U.S.'s recent military moves in the Asia-Pacific since they might in hindsight have been driven by the anti-Chinese faction's hegemonic interests.

Of relevance to the present piece, the U.S. obtained access to four more military bases in the Philippines earlier this year, bringing its total in that country to nine. Although Philippine President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. promised that they won't be used for "offensive actions," his administration's perception of defensive actions can arguably be seen as offensive by China in the event that they're called upon to support Manila in its territorial dispute with Beijing. The U.S. State Department's latest statement suggests as much.

With this in mind, it could very well have been that the Philippines was emboldened by its former U.S. colonizer and the latter's near-doubling of its military presence in that archipelago earlier this year to violate international law by clandestinely trying to build an unofficial permanent base in the Ren'ai Jiao. Manila might think that this could allow it to threaten Beijing's legitimate interests with impunity, but that would be a mistake since Washington could be manipulating it to provoke a regional security crisis.

As was previously explained, its anti-Chinese policymaking faction appears to be preparing to advance their hegemonic aims ahead of a possible de-escalation in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict by year's end. It's therefore possible that they intend to sacrifice the Philippines for the purpose of creating the pretext for accelerating the U.S.'s so-called "pivot to Asia" so as to more forcefully "contain" China. Suffice to say, this scenario would be disastrous for Asia and especially the Philippines.

The best way to prevent that from happening is for the Philippines to strictly abide by the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea, which in this context entails stopping its clandestine construction of an unofficial permanent military base on its grounded warship in the Ren'ai Jiao. That structure must also be dismantled, and Manila mustn't internationalize its dispute with Beijing by requesting Washington's military support.

The failure to abide by this advice could lead to a China-U.S. conflict by miscalculation, not to mention a local one between China and the Philippines, or at the very least an unprecedented worsening of the regional security situation to every responsible stakeholder's detriment. President Marcos came to office on the pledge to improve his people's living standards, but this will be impossible to fulfill if his country continues saber-rattling and doesn't prioritize a peaceful resolution to its dispute with China.

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