It’s Time to Rethink Philippine Policies on China



Reactions in social media depict a growing frustration among the general Filipino public regarding the political will of the current administration to secure the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in relation to the South China Sea (referred to in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea). With the fast approaching midterm elections in the Philippines, the Duterte administration’s low-key approach toward security concerns in the sea could be a major issue that the opposition could underscore in their campaign. Still, regardless of one’s political conviction or inclination, the country cannot simply escape the reality that its security is undermined by the lack of national consensus on how to deal with China.

In order to contribute to the current discussion on the Philippines’ foreign policy toward China and its national security imperative, the following policy assumptions need to be evaluated: first, the Philippines must seize the opportunities from an economically powerful China, and, second, without an actual threat of a military attack from China, the government should have nothing to worry about in dealing with Beijing. These assumptions are derived from closely examining the pronouncements and statements of key officials, who in one way or another, influence and drive the country’s foreign policy. Understanding these assumptions and identifying negations allows one to transcend discussions from the usual policy dichotomy of confrontation or engagement.

On the first assumption, there is little to debate on the economic weight and importance of China in international affairs and the opportunities low and medium-income economies can reap from China’s economic growth. As a developing state, the Philippines is obviously drawn to this idea. House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stated that China’s development model is something to consider and that it “has given us [the Philippines] the lesson that there is just not one path for development.” She also argued that with China’s participation in key government projects, Beijing should be regarded as a partner in development, not a threat. This sentiment is shared by many in the private sector. There are those who believe that the administration’s approach to improve relations with China is “a big push to its own Philippine Development Plan.” Further, despite the security risks raised by the United States against Huawei, leading telecommunication companies in the Philippines are steadfast to continue their partnership with Huawei. The Huawei’s 5G technology is considered ahead of the technology of its Western competitors, which is why Philippine telecom company, Globe, is seeking Huawei’s technology for their 5G services.

These considerations may strengthen the case that the Philippines should consider China more as an economic partner than a threat to national security. But while the Philippines could certainly gain from engaging with China, these opportunities and gains also have their drawbacks.

First, Chinese investments are strategic rather than benevolent, and thus, the primary objective is not to aid the Philippines in its development, but rather to improve China’s position in achieving its own objectives and protecting its interests. For instance, its infrastructure development projects with developing countries including the Philippines, which is now considered by many as coinciding with the administration’s Build, Build, Build program, is driven by its overcapacity problem back home.
Also, China’s inclination to support the development of the Philippine government media agency through training and donations is guided by Beijing’s storytelling approach to influence the international narrative on China. This means that benefiting from China’s growth is not a decision solely made by those seeking to benefit, but rather, is dependent on China’s interests, objectives, and willingness to share the opportunities with other countries. This view allows us to examine China’s duality : an economic partner and also a risk for national development and security.

Second, allowing China, through its associates, to participate in investments on critical industries and infrastructure hands them a clear leverage in any dispute or conflict that may arise between China and the Philippines. The economic clout built carefully by Beijing can be used as a tool to push the Philippines into submission even before conflict erupts or to prevent the latter from countering the former. In short, China does not need to fire a single shot to win a war; all they need is for the Philippines to cooperate. Without a strong foundation of trust and confidence, the issue that needs focus from defense and security planners is not a question of intention but of China’s capacity to cause disruption through the technologies it has shared with the Philippines.

Last, while China may exploit natural resources and dominate investments in the Philippines, one cannot deny the role of governance in this situation. Recipient states such as the Philippines have the responsibility of ensuring that the inflow of capital and technology from foreign sources, in this case China, are distributed for the benefit of the people and not just a few, and are transparent and efficient. Notably, China’s FDI and foreign assistance to developing states are inherently different from that of the West since Beijing does not consider good governance or other political issues as a prerequisite for its financial support. This runs the risk of colluding with corrupt officials and of handing more benefits to Chinese companies rather than to Filipino businesses. As Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi examine in their book By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World, China’s investment in resource-rich countries are either transformative — having positive political and social effects — or destructive — making domestic conditions worse. The outcome is therefore likely dependent on the recipient states and their government, and not on China.

On the second assumption, it touches on the pitfalls of identifying new security risks and challenges. While many China scholars have argued that firing the first shot is not in Beijing’s military playbook, such a claim does not disprove the skepticism that China is using other means to advance its position — at the expense of other states including the Philippines. This is most glaring in the maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China’s use of non-military vessels to increase presence in the sea has previously been considered a security challenge for both military operators and international law experts, something that was shared with the public. It has also used tactics and approaches that most Western scholars regard as “gray zone” strategy or tactics. Since this particular strategy adopts an incremental approach to achieve its objectives and desired conditions, the larger defense and security community has failed to identify how China’s seemingly singular and isolated actions in the political, economic, social, and technological realms actually build up into a strong claim and control in the South China Sea.

Further, the improved relations between China and the Philippines was made possible by setting aside political disagreements, particularly on the South China Sea, and proceeding with non-controversial issues such as economic and technological partnership. With this, the compartmentalization of bilateral issues between Manila and Beijing has led the former to be more cautious not to disrupt its relations with the latter especially over hard to resolve issues such as the South China Sea disputes. For instance, the recent news of Chinese militia swarming Pag-asa Island was initially received mildly by Malacanang, saying that Chinese fisherfolks accessing the resources in the area can stay while militias should leave, if proven to be present. Later, the government argued that the Philippines has no capacity to win a war against China, and that Beijing has only given assistance to the Philippines thus far without asking for favors especially in relation to yielding territories. These messages effectively translate into the assumption that so long as China does not use force or invade the Philippines, there is nothing to worry about when engaging with China.

This narrow view of security, focusing on a military attack or invasion, cripples the ability of government to recognize new security threats and multi-domain challenges that have security and military implications. Further, these new security threats may not even have a military implication, but nonetheless they may still expose the vulnerability of the Philippines and its population, which is why it makes it all the more difficult to lobby for greater national security consciousness. To illustrate, one may think of Huawei’s technology as non-threatening and a welcomed development for the Philippines’ poor and lagging Information and Communications Technology (ICT).
However, the possibility of espionage and indiscriminate surveillance of users is definitely a risk for data privacy and national security. But instead of choosing between the false dichotomy of accepting Chinese technology and rejecting them all together, the government should consider investing on building its capabilities to detect threats and malicious activities in data collection and acquisition, data storage, processing, transmission, and delivery. This way, it could benefit from this technology while reducing the risk of exposure to future attacks and disruptions.

Rethinking security to move beyond the narrow view of military security has the highest potential of expanding the policy options of the government, thereby allowing it to look at issues and decisions both from a development and security standpoint. The future of national security is largely determined by how current policy-makers and planners view conditions of the future; these views are framed and driven by what assumptions are adopted and considered today.

Rej Cortez Torrecampo is the Senior Research Specialist of the Philippine Center of Excellence in Defense, Development, and Security. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Center.