By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter

CHINA is unlikely to attack the Philippines over their sea distpue, political analysts said at the weekend, while downplaying the potential of Russia’s war against Ukraine reaching Asia.

“China’s fundamental military doctrine and principle are that China won’t or will never attack any country unless attacked first,” Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy, a political analyst from think tank Philippine BRICS Strategic Studies, said in a Viber message. “China will not attack the Philippines despite differences in the South China Sea. There’s no doubt about it.”

She called the paranoia over a supposed Chinese threat to justify the Philippines’ Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States misleading and deceptive, including the notion of an aggressive Chinese navy prowling in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea, a key global shipping route, is subject to overlapping territorial claims involving China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China’s behavior during the Korean and Vietnam wars showed that it does not take military action unless and until its borders are threatened by invasion, Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said in an e-mail.

“It always tries to contain conflicts to bilateral terms and avoid multilateral conflicts,” he added.

“It is for this reason that it does not approve of the military alliances of other countries and views them as sources of insecurity and instability,” he pointed out. “It also makes it less likely that China will attack the Philippines even if there is a Taiwan conflict.”

Mr. Batongbacal also said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to spill over to Asia because “it does not have specific security interests in East and Southeast Asia that would parallel its security interests along its western borders.”

“Unless it means Russia attacking every other country that sided with Ukraine, I do not see any scenario requiring US use of military facilities in the Philippines in connection with the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” he added.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte might open the country’s facilities to the US if the Ukraine-Russia crisis spills over to Asia, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel G. Romualdez said last week, citing the country’s “special relationship” with the US.

“Unless it means Russia attacking every other country that sided with Ukraine, I don’t see any scenario requiring US use of military facilities in the Philippines in connection with the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” Mr. Batongbacal said.

Ms. Uy noted that while Chinese fishermen and navy ships have harassed fishers from other countries, these incidents were not new and have been committed by other parties, including the Philippines.

Back in 2017, two Vietnamese fishermen were found dead, while five others were taken into custody after fishing off northwestern Philippines, sparking a night chase where a Vietnamese boat hit a Philippine navy ship and prompting its crew to fire shots.

A similar incident occurred in 2013, when a Philippine coast guard member opened fire and killed a Taiwanese fisherman aboard a boat sailing between northern Philippines and Taiwan. Taiwan sanctioned the Philippines before the row was diplomatically resolved.

“These kinds of minor skirmishes and conflicts will likely happen from time to time,” Ms. Uy said. “That’s a reality that all parties to the South China Sea dispute are confronted with, including the Philippines.”

“The most important thing is that no serious military confrontations tantamount to war or a major conflict thus far have happened,” she added, citing the importance of a code of conduct to resolve conflict.

Still, Mr. Batongbacal thinks the Mutual Defense Treaty serves as a deterrent to incursions.

“What is more important is to consider the deterrent effect of the alliance against potential incursions,” he said, noting that after the US pulled out of the Philippines in the 1990s, China was emboldened to take Mischief Reef in 1995.

The external defense capacities of the Philippines, he added, have rapidly developed since it began joint exercises with the US military.

Ms. Uy sought a review of the treaty, which she said is “nonmutual” because it favors the Americans.

The treaty is not as enforceable as a federal law in the US because it did not enact a law enforcing it. “It is as if, in the context of the US, the Mutual Defense Treaty is just an executive agreement.”

Mr. Batongbacal does not see the need to change the treaty because “it is broad enough as it is.” “What is required is simply a supplemental and updated understanding of how it is to be implemented in present times in view of the evolution of the threats.”

“If indeed, the Philippines did not get as much out of the alliance before 2010, it was mainly because it did not have a clear idea of what it wanted out of the alliance in the first place,” he said.