Philippines—a geostrategic battleground?

Roland G. Simbulan 
Philippine Daily Inquirer / August 24, 2022
Posted by CenPEG 27 August 2022

RIPAC 2022

On June 29, 2022, as the war rages in Ukraine after the Russian invasion, the Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) War Exercises 2022 began in our region. The war exercises ended on Aug. 4, overshadowed by the controversy generated by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The Philippines participated in Rimpac war exercises by sending a frigate, the BRP Antonio Luna, to join the 38 ships, four submarines, more than 170 aircraft, and 25,000 personnel from the 26 participating countries, eight of which are from the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).

Given the US’ current strategic doctrine that now targets China as THE main threat challenging its global imperial supremacy, this formidable show of US-led sea power carries a message of military provocation against China. Nato, which in a strategy paper identified China as a “systemic threat,” is now active in the Indo-Pacific as shown in these Rimpac naval war maneuvers. Its European members are a regular presence in the South China Sea, invoking “freedom of navigation.” Nato has become a military alliance with a global interventionist role, which started with Yugoslavia, Syria, and Libya. Recent US-Nato inroads into Asia include the Aukus, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US; the “Five-Eyes” Alliance composed of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, and Quad, the strategic security dialogue among Australia, India, Japan, and the US.

US imperial interests, which have long dominated the South China Sea as part of an “American Lake,” are now threatened by the challenge of China’s defensive sea power in the region as the latter protects its own eastern and southern coastlines, as well as sea lanes to trade. For the US, China has become the main obstacle to its global dominance, notwithstanding Russia’s attacks in Ukraine.

US strategists want to trap China into a military confrontation, an arena where the United States is unquestionably the strongest global military power. Pentagon planners like to believe that China is now following Alfred Thayer Mahan’s offensive militaristic approach of “Whoever rules the sea, rules the world.”

I beg to disagree.

With a single overseas military base in Djibouti, Africa, China still maintains Mackinder’s Heartland strategy of being a continental land power through its economic strategy in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), thus following Sun Tzu’s dictum of “[subduing] the enemy without fighting.” Through the BRI, China intends to engage in a global infrastructure for trade and investments by linking the world’s economic corridors from Asia, Europe, and Africa.

To provoke China into a military confrontation today is to trap it into an arena where the US is still superior. The American chess pieces of 800 overseas military bases, gunboat diplomacy in air, land, and sea, and military technology are more than 20 years ahead of China, and are further bolstered by the $850 billion proposed US defense budget for 2023. The US continues to surround China in the Indo-Pacific with bases, carrier fleets, and submarines bristling with conventional and nuclear missiles.

Fortunately, China does not want to fall into the trap that doomed the former Soviet Union in an arms race or commit the mistakes of past colonial big powers.

But this fierce geopolitical competition between the US and China inevitably involves the Philippines because of its geostrategic location. Will we continue to be a de facto US aircraft carrier and part of the US nuclear infrastructure? The Mutual Defense Treaty, the Visiting Forces Agreement, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement make us part of the offensive island chain of encirclement against neighboring China. There is now an agreement with the US-firm Cerberus for it to take over Hanjin Shipyard at Subic that will allow the regular repair, refueling, and docking of the US Navy.

Resisting that default role, will our nation instead become a peacemaker while safeguarding its own interests and national security, in what Southeast Asia has collectively long declared a “zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality”?

We are a hairbreadth away from a miscalculation of grave consequences that threaten
human existence. Citizen transnational activism can still turn back the tide of wars that can lead to unintended escalation due to human or computer error. Let us prevent provocative US and Chinese military operations from triggering a great power war. Let us do our share in preventing further tensions and the waste of scarce resources on conflicts. Instead, let us focus on resolving the climate emergency and social inequities, and preventing future pandemics. To prevent a great power war that will threaten human survival is the big challenge of our times.


Roland Simbulan is vice chair of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, and teaches public policy courses at the University of the Philippines.

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