The Philippines may have no choice but to get involved if ever the tension between United States and China in the South China Sea turns into a full blown war, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed Wednesday.
At a virtual forum organized by Stratbase ADR Institute, Lorenzana admitted that the security concern in the disputed waters has occupied the interest and time of the security agencies in the Indo-Pacific region, including that of the Philippines.
He said that the fear of miscalculation “is ever present” as US and China continue to assert their interests in the region, although both were insisting that their actions were a response to each other’s hostile activity.
To emphasize his point, Lorenzana recalled a near confrontation between the two superpowers in 2018 when a Chinese military vessel almost collided with a US warship which, at the time, was exercising freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
“This then is the crux of the security challenge in the Indo-Pacific region: the looming confrontation of the US and its allies, and China for the South China Sea,” Lorenzana said.
“And if ever a shooting war happens, [the] Philippines which is right smack in the middle of the conflict, will be involved whether she likes it or not,” he warned.
China has further tightened its grip in the areas it claims in the South China Sea despite the awarding of an arbitral ruling in favor of the Philippines in 2016. The tribunal ruling rejected China’s claims in its so-called nine-dash line territory which encroaches into the Philippines’ maritime territory.
According to Lorenzana, the recent decision of China and its government to arm its Coast Guard and patrolling vessels in the South China Sea has contributed to the increased tension in the region.
To counter this, the US conducted patrols in the South China Sea along with other countries such as India, Japan, and Australia, which have expressed public support to the arbitral ruling that favored the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea.
The issue on the overlapping claims of the Philippines and China in the South China Sea was discussed by President Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping in at least two instances.
In a bilateral meeting between the two world leaders in 2017, Xi told Duterte: “Mr. President, I don’t think we will see the resolution of this issue during our lifetimes. Maybe our grandchildren will have better ideas to resolve it.”
In another meeting in 2019, Duterte invoked the arbitral ruling, saying it is final and executory and non-negotiable. Xi responded: “But Mr. President, we also claim the area.”
Lorenzana said that the US and China continue to woo the Philippines on its side in the midst of the rising superpower rivalry. But the Defense chief noted that Duterte has made his intentions known by leaning towards Beijing over its long-time ally, Washington.
Duterte’s preference of China earned him criticisms especially as complaints regarding Beijing’s hostile actions against Manila in the disputed waters start to surface, including preventing Filipino fishermen from casting their nets in fishing areas and the intrusion of military ships in Philippine territory without proper coordination to the authorities.
“What should the Philippines do in the face of this rising superpower rivalry and complicating matters even more with the participation of some middle powers? A lot of suggestions has been put in the table on how the Philippines should navigate this complicated situation,” he said.
“Everyone knows what President Duterte did to move the country towards China. Some say it’s good for the country, some say it is bad,” he stated.