It started out with what appeared at first to be an earthquake. Just that the earthquake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale and lasting around 10 seconds, was only 10 kilometers deep and took place at Kimchaek, a known area where North Korea conducts nuclear tests.
Then it became clear: the North Korean government congratulated itself on a successful hydrogen bomb detonation, the sixth, and against the expressed international proscription to do so.
The hydrogen bomb’s power can reach levels of thousands of kilotons, able to be detonated at high altitudes, and – with intercontinental ballistic missiles – reach mainland US.
More importantly, the components were reportedly indigenous, such that North Korea need not import, and thus able to produce any number of nuclear weapons it wants without foreign assistance.
International condemnation was swift and US Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that any attack on the US or any of its allies will be met with a “massive military response”.
While Japan’s foreign minister Taro Kono and the US State secretary Rex Tillerson called for fresh sanctions, Mattis dryly stated that while the US is not looking for the “total annihilation” of North Korea, it has “many options to do so”.
But this article is not about North Korea, of which the Philippines is bizarrely its third largest trading partner.
This is about the Philippines and our territorial sea.
Because the North Korean issue revealed something about the Philippines: that it practically no longer plays a significant factor in international calculations.
After all, with the US having longer ranged weaponry and other dependably wealthy allies, what does it need the Philippines for?
To back up a bit, last 19 August 2017 Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio commented on an alleged “invasion” of Philippine territory:
“[China is now occupying Sandy Cay]. This is worse than what happened in Scarborough Shoal”. It was not even part of China’s “discredited historic nine-dashed line claim. Sandy Cay emerged within the territorial sea of a Philippine territory. If Sandy Cay becomes Chinese territory, it will reduce by a third or more Pagasa’s territorial sea. It will also prevent the Philippines from extending the territorial sea of Pagasa to include Subi Reef. By any yardstick, this is seizure of Philippine territory.”
Assuming such is true, what then can be done?
Calls for again suing China were made, of course. But in practical terms, such really doesn’t do anything.
The key assumption people always had is that the disputed Pacific areas are of military and economic importance to the US, such that it will not allow China’s dominance over the same.
But what if that assumption is wrong? What if that area and the Philippines are no longer as militarily, strategically important as it was back in World War II?
For one, during a workshop earlier this year, Australia-China Relations Institute James Laur¬ence¬son pointed out that:
“The $US5.3 trillion figure, which had then been repeated by numerous commentators, appeared to be a ‘considerable overestimate’. He said 70 per cent of global trade was carried by sea, with the world merchandise trade in 2011 amounting to $US17.8 trillion. This implied that around 43 per cent of total seaborne trade went through the South China Sea. Laurenceson said this claim was ‘extremely difficult to reconcile’ because many of the world’s most prominent bilateral trade relationships were domi¬nated by seaborne trade yet did not involve the South China Sea.”
Also, “Laurenceson said the US trade that might cross the South China Sea was that with ASEAN, yet the US Census Bureau listed this as only amounting to $US200 billion annually and included not just goods shipped by sea but also air trade”.
Australian National University Strategic and Defence Studies Centre’s Brendan Taylor then adds an interesting observation – that the disputed area as dangerous “flashpoint” is actually a myth: “First, East Asia’s traditional flashpoints—Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and the East China Sea—stand a significantly higher prospect of combusting into broader, region-wide conflict. Second, China’s interests in the South China Sea are often overstated, and Beijing will continue to favor options short of military force to advance what interests it does have in this region. Third, the balance of military power in the South China Sea is not shifting against the United States at the rate many pundits suggest, rendering overblown the prospects for Washington being drawn into war with China to defend the credibility of its Asian alliances.”
Finally, there’s also this: the US is far from being a spent force. From economics to demographics to politics (domestic or international), frankly, time is on the US’ side.
It doesn’t need a war with China, they can just wait it out and let China exhaust itself.
This leaves the Philippines on its own.
Now, how we develop a short and long-term foreign and security policy factoring the aforementioned possibilities requires sophistication undisplayed by the last and (so far) this administration.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.