Pushing the Philippines

The Philippines either aligns with Washington totally, or Washington will Finlandize them.


I’ve received some interesting fan mail regarding my recent post about the need to draw a new maritime defensive perimeter around China by moving U.S. forces off of the Korean peninsula and onto Taiwan (after we recognize Taiwan as an independent and fully sovereign state). In the map that I drew for that piece, there was a gap around the Philippines (which can be seen here):

As you can see, I propose we make the defensive perimeter around eastern Eurasia along maritime regions that we can better control (China’s navy is not yet that great compared to ours).

One astute Facebook follower wrote,

“there seems to be a big, Philippines sized hole in what was the First Island Chain line of defence [sic]. If China had air bases and naval ports in the Philippines, she would dominate the South China Sea, and the Second Island Chain would become more difficult to defend by an order of magnitude.”

I had not intended to address this issue until after I made another post about a different subject, but since many wrote in to my email as well as made similar comments as this one on social media, I will explain.

Right now, the United States is having great difficulty in keeping Duterte’s Philippines in line with the U.S.-led alliance. Philippine intransigence will remain high, given the history of U.S.-Philippine relations and the proximity of China to the borders of the Philippines. What’s more, Manilla does not want to be caught between the two juggernauts of Beijing and Washington, D.C.

As the Athenians told the Melians:

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

It would, therefore, behoove the leadership of the Philippines to make the best of bad choices in the budding Sino-American conflict lest it be reduced to a neutralized state incapable of protecting its own interests.

In 1946, when the Philippines was being granted independence, Paul V. McNutt, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the Philippines worried about the “lack of appreciation and understanding of our relations to the Philippines’ amongst the decolonizing world.” You see, the Americans were viewed as colonizers by many Filipinos (and many throughout the world). As the world moved beyond the Second World War and into the ideological confrontation that was the Cold War, the battle for influence among former colonized countries became especially pronounced between the Communists and the Capitalists.

Presently, the maritime defensive perimeter that I have suggested to best contain China’s rise is insufficient to achieving these goals without great costs. This is because the Philippines remain intransigent partners for Washington. This intransigence is partly born out of historical antipathy toward the United States and its treatment of the Philippines. It is also out of a deep desire to remain independent of both the distant United States and the nearby People’s Republic of China. But, Manilla will have to decide which side it takes in this budding conflict between China ands the United States, lest it become Finlandized (which is entirely possible) in the marathon for world dominance between Beijing and Washington, D.C. gets underway.

Contextualizing Present U.S.-Philippine Relations

The Philippines has a long and mixed history of interaction with the United States. Having originally been liberated from the Spanish Empire during the Spanish-American War in 1898 by the American military, the United States strove not to liberate the Philippines from foreign control, but rather to replace Spanish dominion over the region with its own. At the end of the 19th century, as the American “Wild West” had been tamed, the settler mindset did not dissipate. Instead, many Americans embraced the notion of “Manifest Destiny” and looked beyond America’s West Coast deep into the Pacific Ocean as yet another place to expand American reach.

During this period, America’s naval might had been expanding as well and U.S. maritime trade increased significantly. Specifically, U.S. trade with the Asia-Pacific was growing at a considerable rate. In order to gain access to the lucrative markets of the Asia-Pacific, though, the United States needed to capture territory in between their West Coast and the easternmost shores of mainland Eurasia.

Thus, the Americans looked to small islands in the Pacific, such as Hawaii and, ultimately, the Philippines and desired to use these territories as weigh stations of sorts. This was the basis of the geopolitical theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who encouraged a “stepping stone” strategy for the United States in the Pacific.

Yet, the Filipinos who, at first, were grateful to the Americans for having assisted them in their struggle against Spanish imperial domination, were no more interested in swearing fealty to Washington, D.C. than they were in doing to Madrid. By 1899, when it became clear that the United States was disinterested in handing off power to the locals in the Philippines, became embroiled in a tense counterinsurgency against Filipino guerillas. The U.S. pacification attempts of the Philippines was, at times, brutal. Ultimately, though, the suppression of the various Philippine uprisings–notably the Moro uprising–helped to stabilize the country and establish itself as a vital component in Asia-Pacific affairs. For example, contrary to what some have argued, General John J. Pershing (the future World War I legend) did not massively exterminate the Moro insurgents, who were nominally Muslim. Instead, he used state-building, counterinsurgency tactics to great effect.

Here is how Mark Perry described Pershing’s efforts during the Moro Uprising:

While Pershing never recoiled from using force, he adopted a military strategy that would later be reinvented as FM 3-24, the famous counterinsurgency manual written by David Petraeus and James Amos and applied in Iraq. Pershing brought down the levels of violence (which had been used liberally, and to little effect, by his predecessors), recruited Filipinos to carry out law enforcement duties, simplified the provincial court system, designated government land for the building of mosques, took a go-slow approach to changing tribal customs (which included polygamy), reformed the laws governing contract labor, put aside more money for the building of schools and established trading posts to rebuild the Moro economy. Pershing also diligently provided a personal example for his soldiers by learning the Moro dialect, getting to know local Muslim leaders and reading the Quran. In essence, he became a kind of Lawrence of the Philippines—a Moro Whisperer.

Yes, Pershing engaged in a bloody battle at Bug Bagsak, which resulted in 500 Moro tribesmen being killed and 13 American troops dying in combat. Pershing would describe this battle as the bloodiest he had ever personally fought. Contrary to what some on the internet and, mostly Marxist historians believe, Pershing was not some butcher. In fact, Pershing did his level-best to mitigate the damage done to the Philippine people and infrastructure while at the same time ensuring that the Philippines became a reliable base for American power projection into the geostrategically vital region of the Asia-Pacific.

U.S. General John J. Pershing leads U.S. Army forces into battle. Photo Courtesy of AP News.

In 1946, the Philippines finally achieved their full independence as a sovereign state. The world rejoiced, though many believed that Philippine independence “existed in name only” to quote one British official who was present when Philippine independence was officially recognized by Washington. For its part, the Soviet Union agreed with the British interpretation and worked assiduously to dislodge the Philippine’s former American colonial masters, thereby reducing American power projection capabilities in the Asia-Pacific.

During this era, the Hukbalahap, a hodgepodge group of Philippine peasants and farmers who had fought a bloody insurgency against the Japanese imperial invaders during the Second World War, became a lightning rod group in Philippine domestic politics. In the postwar era, the Huk embraced Communism and opposed any serious Philippine connection to the Americans, whom they viewed as virulent colonizers intent on destroying Philippine independence and remaining masters of that vital territory in the Asia-Pacific. As Huk political candidates rose to power in the Philippines’ nascent democracy, the Americans openly and notoriously backed their political rivals, using all measures at their disposal to assist the anti-Huk political candidates to besmirch and impugn the Huk candidates.

This had the stultifying effect of making ordinary Filipinos, with whom the Huk’s message of national liberation resonated, suspicious and uneasy about America’s continued role in the Philippines throughout the Cold War. Due to this, in the words of Elliot Newbold,

the image of America as a neutral arbiter of democracy in Asia [was harmed] and pushing the Huks closer to armed rebellion.

A succession of U.S.-backed leaders–notably Ferdinand Macros–helped to keep the Philippines in America’s orbit during the Cold War. Unfortunately, it was also done through corruption, brute force, and autocracy. Nevertheless, the logic of the Cold War meant that Washington had no choice but to “dance with the ones who brought them” as it were. The downside was that the Philippine voters became skeptical of American influence and, in the post-Cold War era, inspired Filipinos to push the Americans out of their territory at the ballot box.

The essential American deepwater naval base at Subic Bay, for example, was shuttered in the 1990s and American presence in the area has been on the wane. Unsurprisingly, as U.S. Naval influence has decreased, unwanted Chinese influence has moved to fill in that strategic gap.

Since 2016, the Philippines have increasingly embraced the authoritarian model under the rule of the septuagenarian, Rodrigo Duterte. A staunch populist and a nationalist to boot–a man who, as mayor endorsed the extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers–Duterte has striven to distance Philippine foreign policy away from the Americans and to move them closer to that of Russia and China. When the United Nations foolishly opted to denounce Duterte’s ongoing endorsement of extrajudicial killings for suspected drug dealers in the ongoing Philippine Drug War, Duterte threatened to pull his country out of the United Nations entirely and create an alternative world organization with Moscow and Beijing as its anchors.

Yet, for all of his appreciation for China, Duterte cannot seem to entirely win Beijing over to his side. In recent years, despite Duterte’s best efforts, China has unlawfully built up their presence in the South China Sea, threatening the territorial integrity of the Philippines. This prompted Duterte to endorse plans meant to rollback and stunt China’s growing influence in areas near (or within) the territory of the Philippines. Still, Duterte maintains that the Philippines will remain aloof and independent from the budding Sino-American marathon for world dominance.

Fat chance that will remain a reality for Duterte. He will have to choose. And, if he refuses and attempts a middle-way, as the marathon for dominance between China and the United States intensifies, he will find his country playing the unfortunate role that Finland played in the Cold War: it will be neutral and unable to truly protect its own national interests.

The Philippines Pushes America Out, China Moves In

During the post-Cold War era, China has established illegal military bases throughout the South China Sea, moving their forces within striking distance of the Philippine archipelago. Tense standoffs exist between Filipino forces and Chinese ones throughout the South China Sea, as Beijing–armed with better weapons, a larger military, and better funding–steadily solidifies its illegal grasp on the area surrounding the Philippines.

Part of the reason that Beijing is so keen on expanding its reach to within miles of Philippine territorial waters is to gain access to the reputed vast natural resource wealth that exist beneath the surface of the South China Sea. Another reason is, like the United States of the nineteenth century, to extend its defensive perimeter beyond its own territory–as well as to have the capacity to influence and threaten distant maritime shipping routes.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the South China Sea is best defined as:

The South China Sea comprises a stretch of roughly 1.4 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean that encompasses an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan, spanning west of the Philippines, north of Indonesia, and east of Vietnam. The South China Sea islands number in the hundreds, although the largest and most contentious territories include the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas Islands, Macclesfield Bank, and Scarborough Shoal, to which all of the six major Southeast Asian nations lay various claims. The islands are mostly uninhabited and have never had an indigenous population, making the issue of historical sovereignty a thorny one to resolve.

Plus, Beijing has embraced the “Cow’s Tongue” territorial map that is entirely revanchist and undermines present international legal boundaries for the Asia-Pacific.

Here is an image of the Nine-Dash Line Map that the Chinese believe is legitimate. The United Nations and international community have all agreed with the American claim (which is unusual, given their own antipathy toward the United States) that the Nine-Dash Line is illegal under international law (specifically, it violates the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea). It is nicknamed the “Cow’s Tongue,” because it appears in the shape of a cow’s tongue.

The “Cow’s Tongue,” or more appropriately, the “Nine-Dash Line” map that Beijing believes is the appropriate way to interpret territorial demarcations in the South China Sea is highly favorable to Chinese geostrategic interests. It also plays to domestic Chinese audiences, all of whom have been raised on the “wolf’s milk” of nationalism.

The Cow’s Tongue map is based on what China believes was its imperial boundaries before China was colonized and cleaved apart by the European colonial empires during the “century of humiliation” (the nineteenth century). Believing that they were treated unjustly by Western powers (they were), Beijing uses this historical injustice as a way of legitimizing their entirely illegitimate claims on what is either the sovereign territory of their neighbors, such as the Philippines, or what is clearly international (and, therefore, neutral) territory.

The South China Sea, according to the World Bank:

holds proven oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which offer tremendous economic opportunity for smaller nations like Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and energy security for China’s large, growing economy. 

Meanwhile, competition over lucrative fishing rights in the region has intensified, notably between China and the Philippines. The International Crisis Group argued several years back the competition for access to fishing rights in the South China Sea qualifies as a major international crisis. This is because 1.5 billion people reside near this region of the Asia-Pacific and rely heavily on the fisheries located there for sustenance and jobs. China’s attempts to unduly monopolize this area will have deleterious impacts on countries, such as the Philippines, that do not have the inherent power and capabilities that Beijing possesses…that is unless Manilla aligns more closely with Washington.

Then there is also the fact that a staggering 50 percent of the world’s maritime trade passes through the South China Sea! China’s attempts to create well-armed military bases on artificial islands in what was once independent, international territory–or to create exclusive air defense zones in these areas–has complicated global trade. While China has attempted to avoid directly interfering with international Maritime trade in the region (or civilian air traffic here), their increased and obviously hostile presence in this area could prove disastrous. After all, it was only a few years ago when one of the Chinese military’s artificial islands targeted a Delta Airlines flight that had unwittingly flown through what Beijing claimed to be Chinese airspace (but was, in fact, international airspace).

The longer the tensions persist, the more natural resources that China needs, and the greater their desire for global influence gets, some kind of catastrophe will occur here. This will, in turn, increase the likelihood of armed conflict between the United States and China while at the same time raising the overall cost of shipping on the world’s consumers–negatively impacting your wallet.

AirSea Battle vs. Offshore Control

There is also the issue of offshore control that China seeks to ameliorate. Right now, the preferred military option for rolling back Chinese influence in the region is the AirSea Battle Concept (now called the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons). This was the Pentagon’s attempt to figure out how to break the Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) threat that China’s artificial island buildup was posing. Basically, the Pentagon wanted a plan at-the-ready to deploy U.S. Naval, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Marine Corps forces to break open a part of the Asia-Pacific that China may one day attempt to deny the Americans or their allies access to. However, this was a highly provocative plan.

T.X. Hammes of the National Defense Univeristy first proposed an alternative to the the AirSea Battle Concept that was far more strategic and would employ a more realistic approach to future Chinese military provocations in what should international waters. He proposed the Offshore Control approach. Since China relied so heavily on importing resources to fuel their rise, and since so much of China’s imports come from maritime trading routes, Hammes wanted to use America’s overwhelming naval superiority to blockade critical waterways far beyond China’s strategic reach. In so doing, it would strangle China (similar to what the British Empire did to the Germans in the First World War) and protect U.S. military assets from Chinese counterattack.

In Hammes’ words:

Offshore Control matches the capabilities required for its execution to reduced U.S. defense resources while increasing the cost to China to respond effectively.

This plan, more than the AirSea Battle Concept, freaked Chinese military planners out. Therefore, they’ve striven to enhance their reach beyond current Chinese territory and have built up their own capabilities to not only deny critical areas of the Asia-Pacific to the Americans, but to threaten U.S. Naval assets with things like their Dong Feng-21D “Carrier Killer” missile. Nevertheless, Hammes’ plan is the most workable since it would buy Washington the time it needed to negotiate with Beijing over a crisis in either the South China Sea (or elsewhere) whilst putting the hurt on China’s authoritarian leaders.

Hammes correctly assesses that China’s maritime trade is threatened due to the presence on the “first island chain,” the string of islands off China’s coasts that can be–and have been–used by China’s enemies to contain Chinese influence to their own shores. China has striven to expand its control over the various island chains to, at the very least, the second island chain. But, the presence of countries like Taiwan and the Philippines and Japan as points of potential American power projection has complicated this endeavor. Hammes seeks to use this complication for China to America’s advantage, thereby ensuring that China never threatens the wider region.

This is basically the basis of my re-designed maritime containment line against China (that has a significant gap, unfortunately, due to the Philippines).

For this plan to work, though, the Philippines must either be a reliable partner or they must be neutral on the surface and deeply influenced by U.S. foreign policy under-the-table (the way Finland was by the Soviet Union during the Cold War).

Moving Forward

It remains to be seen as to whether the United States can coax the Philippines fully to its side as Washington managed to do during the Cold War. Nevertheless, the Trump Administration must try. The alternative is either that the Philippines becomes a conduit for U.S. power and the reader of The Weichert Report who pointed out the significant gap in my proposed defensive perimeter is proven correct (and China will never be contained then). It is clear, though, that the Duterte regime will be disinclined to totally work with the United States. Therefore, a plan for Finlandizing the Philippines should be in order.

The Philippines is relatively weak compared to the United States, China, and Russia. Despite his best efforts to become friendlier with Beijing (and Moscow), the Philippines are ultimately too far removed from both China’s and Russia’s power to be totally subordinated to their influence. Just as the Soviet Union did to Finland, then, the United States must be ready to neutralize the potential threat to the containment strategy that the Philippines pose (without totally pushing the Philippines into China’s camp, however, rhetorically that may be).

Finlandization is the process by which one powerful country makes a smaller neighboring country abide by the former’s foreign policy rules, while allowing it to keep its nominal independence and its own political system.

For the United States to best contain China, it must be done along the axis of the First Island Chain. And this can only be achieved so long as the Philippines does not pose itself a threat to the American effort by becoming a conduit for Chinese influence. Filling the gap in my proposed map from the previous article on this matter should look like this:

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