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The Philippines is hoping history doesn’t repeat itself, again

Editor's ChoiceThe Philippines is hoping history doesn’t repeat itself, again

The Philippines is fighting off aggressive Chinese encroachment on its maritime territory. It isn’t the first time, and last time it ended badly for the Philippines, in part because they didn’t get effective backing from the US.

President George W. Bush once described himself as “a uniter, not a divider.”
China’s leader, Xi Jinping is a uniter as well…though in a different sort of way.
On April 11th, President Biden, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos will meet in Washington, DC. This is the first such joint meeting.
And it’s Chinese pressure on both the Philippines’ and Japan’s maritime territory that is bringing everyone together.
Some meetings are more important than others. And this one’s important.

The Philippines is fighting off aggressive Chinese encroachment on its maritime territory. It isn’t the first time, and last time it ended badly for the Philippines, in part because they didn’t get effective backing from the US.
In 2012, the Chinese grabbed Scarborough Shoal, which had long been claimed by Philippines
The US did nothing when the Chinese broke their promise to then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell to withdraw its ships and instead remained to occupy Scarborough Shoal.
State Department lawyers presumably worked overtime to come up with excuses for why the mutual defence treaty didn’t apply.
The Filipinos were dismayed.
Then, in 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of Philippine claims and largely demolished Beijing’s claims. The Obama administration remained mostly mute—expecting the PRC would reciprocate the restraint.
It didn’t.
Instead, it dismissed the ruling as a piece of “scrap paper”.
Even worse, the Americans had encouraged the Philippines to bring the suit.
The Americans now have two strikes on them as far as many Filipinos are concerned.

China is still on Scarborough Shoal. Now it is trying to make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Philippines to resupply its men who are stationed on a deliberately grounded Philippine Navy ship on Second Thomas Shoal, a location that is, as determined by the Court of Arbitration, well inside Philippines waters.
Beside bumping and blocking, the Chinese blast the Philippine ships with high power water hoses—causing structural damage and serious injury to crewmen—some of whom are Philippine military personnel.
The Chinese—including a PLA Navy helicopter—are also interfering with Philippines ocean research efforts elsewhere in Philippine waters.
The Filipinos gamely resist, but the Chinese are gradually tightening things up and anytime they want they can keep Philippines from their own territory.
President Marcos has stuck his neck out since taking office two years ago. He’s shifted his country away from China and gave new life to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows US military access to a number of facilities in the Philippines. Military exercises with the Americans and others have also ramped up, and the country has bought BrahMos anti-ship missiles from India.
The Americans have done joint naval and air patrols elsewhere in the South China Sea. But US ships and planes haven’t accompanied the Filipinos to where the Chinese get rough with the Philippine ships or when the Philippines asserts its rights by, for example, removing China-installed barriers at the entrance to Scarborough Shoal.
Bottom line? What’s this meeting about? Philippine President Marcos is looking for help.
Are Marcos’ and the Philippines’ hopes misplaced?
They may find out sooner rather than later.
Beyond pushing the Filipinos around, Beijing has thrown down the gauntlet to the United States.
Marcos must be praying the Americans don’t leave the Philippines in the lurch as they did in 2012 and 2016.

So the stakes are high, as are Filipino expectations.
The Americans are talking a good game.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Manila recently: “…we stand with the Philippines and stand by our ironclad defense commitments, including under the mutual defence treaty.”
And following the most recent water-cannoning attack and blocking moves by China Coast Guard and maritime militia against Philippine Coast Guard and resupply boats at Second Thomas Shoal, the US State Department declared: “The United States stands with its ally the Philippines and condemns the dangerous actions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) against lawful Philippine maritime operations in the South China Sea on March 23.
The United States reaffirms that Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft—including those of its Coast Guard—anywhere in the South China Sea.”
All good, but US spokesmen always seem at pains to stress that it is “armed” attacks that trigger American support.
And people in Manila (and Beijing) notice this.
The Philippines might worry that the Americans are once again looking for a way out.
They’ve heard empty pronouncements before—apparently made in hopes of not having to do anything.
And the Chinese might reckon that as long as they don’t “shoot”, the Americans won’t do much.
A Filipino friend noted the other day: “We can take only so much. People feel the Chinese push us to the point where Washington will have to step up and do more.”
Washington might or might not.
It can take the “legal” escape route, or it can keep its promises.
You see, there’s precise wording of a treaty—but there’s also the spirit of a treaty.
And that’s as important—at least when dealing with honest people.
The US-Philippine security treaty presumably did not intend to allow an enemy (the PRC) to use water cannons and a swarm of ships to occupy and seize Philippine territory.
Otherwise, what’s the point of a treaty?
The Biden Administration either gives the Philippines the help it needs—and was promised at the very least under the spirit of the treaty—and runs the risk of a fight with China, or it accepts humiliation at the hands of the Chinese and retreats.
And it’s not just the Filipinos watching what Washington will do next. Everyone else in Asia (and beyond) will make up their own minds about US promises of protection—explicit or implicit.
And if it fails, that will be “Strike Three” for the United States.
It might as well go home at that point.
What about the Japanese? They know that the Chinese won’t stop at Second Thomas Shoal. There are a whole series of Japanese islands on Beijing’s menu as well. They are quietly doing a lot for the Philippines—and they should keep it up. It would be nice if Japan Coast Guard ships helped out, but that’s unlikely.
By showing up to the meeting Japan is letting the Philippines know it is involved, and letting Washington (and Japan’s neighbours) know, this is a regional issue. And Tokyo might also be hinting that it expects the US military to pitch in when it needs help protecting Japanese maritime territory.
And Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar was in Manila the other day, and reiterated India’s support for the Philippines upholding its national sovereignty—in a statement clearly referring to the nation’s South China Sea dispute with China. That’s helpful.
But, ultimately, it’s the Americans who have the treaty with the Philippines, and whose “word” is on the line.
As it happens, Kurt Campbell, who was bamboozled at the time of the Scarborough Shoal retreat is the current Deputy Secretary of State. At the time, Jake Sullivan—the current National Security Advisor—was State’s Director of Policy Planning and then National Security Advisor to the Vice-President. And the then Vice-President, Joseph Biden, is now President.
This team has been here before. They should know what happens if you give Beijing manoeuvring room—they drive right over international law, and you. The question is, will history repeat itself, or have they learned from their mistakes? One wonders.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Colonel and the author of “When China Attacks”.

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