The Philippines -- The Poland of the Pacific?

Given China’s position as a classic Asian land power and America’s role as an oceanic hegemon,  a military challenge has emerged in the near seas close to China through which the essentials of modern industrial power flow – oil, to name just one.  That means the control of the South China Sea is the next step in the establishment of a New Chinese Empire.  As in 1938, when Poland lay between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, the Philippines is the weak point between the U.S. and China.

It is common knowledge that America intends to ring the South China Sea with putative allies -- South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. A goal of our foreign policy is to unite these countries into a defensive cordon.  Meanwhile the Chinese Communist Party seems to be doing what it can to antagonize the neighbors.  Its “Nine Dash Line” ocean aggrandizement, the militarization of shoals and reefs, the bald-faced, brute-force stealing of ocean resources, all should make clear that China is not a good neighbor.

American diplomatic efforts to solidify the front-line countries into a balancing force rely on their basic self-interests as we see them.  Our allies sometimes have different views and see complications that Americans may forget.  Increasing military cooperation between the Japanese and the South Koreans faces a long history of antagonisms and bitterness, including the literal “rape-rape” of the WWII comfort women.  The Vietnamese still remember what we did to try to prevent the current Communist regime from taking over the country.  Pieces of B-52s downed during the Christmas Raids of 1972 still adorn public parks in Hanoi. 

The country with the most difficult decision to make is the Philippines.  The key fact here is that the Philippines is the weakest link in the cordon.  While South Korea and Japan have modern navies and could become nuclear weapon states at will, Philippines has no evident capability.  Vietnam has already beaten back a Chinese army invasion in 1979. Taiwan has braced for invasion for decades.

To quantify the military weakness of the Philippines vs. China, the three largest, most capable ships in the Philippines navy are 40+-year-old former Coast Guard cutters gifted to the country from the U.S.  At 3,250 tons and after major retrofit, they are capable naval assets.  But the Chinese navy has 62 destroyers and frigates of 3,250 tons or larger – three versus 62 plus swarms of smaller warships and a dozen nuclear attack submarines.  A few new corvettes are being delivered to the Philippines from South Korean shipyards, but at 1,700 tons they are half the displacement of the repurposed cutters.

Economically, the Chinese economy increasingly dominates as purchaser of Philippines exports.  China and Hong Kong account for 35% of all export sales, increasingly semiconductors and electronics.  In contrast, the U.S. only buys 13% of Philippine exports.  With a per capita income of $3,280 a year but a growth rate of over 6%, the Philippines is officially a “newly industrializing economy,” thanks largely to neighboring China.  No longer can the Philippines even feed itself -- it increasingly has to import rice, the staple of the diet.

But World War II showed there were risks to alignment with America.  While the Japanese would have conquered the archipelago in any case, the pre-war promise of American defense was ultimately hollow, as the secret War Plan Orange conceded that America lacked the military power to resupply the islands while under Japanese attack.  Douglas MacArthur’s recapture of island was expensive for the U.S. military but the heaviest cost was to the Filipinos, who lost over 100,000 civilian deaths and saw Manila reduced to a smoking ruin, the most damaged of all Allied cities in WWII save Warsaw.

So today the Philippines finds itself with a growing commercial and military aggressor to its west and a dearth of strong friends.  The Chinese have long had active trade with the islands, back into pre-history.  Many of the Filipino elite have some Han blood mixed with Spanish and Malay.  Proximity to the Chinese economy has delivered solid economic growth.  But the Chinese have clearly violated international law in taking over marginal islands not far offshore and have blocked Filipino fishermen from traditional fishing grounds clearly in the economic zone of the Philippines.

My general sense is that most Filipinos are at least suspicious of Chinese intentions if not culturally hostile.  A major problems is the invasion of “shabu.” the local name for methamphetamine, considered to be largely smuggled from China.  Its spread is tearing at Filipino society and one of President Duterte’s most popular policies is shooting down shabu dealers.  President Obama was highly critical of Duterte’s drug control policy, which prompted the Duterte’s infamous retort that Obama was “a son of a whore” but his anti-drug policy remains very popular with Filipinos.

So the choice for the Philippines is becoming clear -- stay open and non-confrontational to China or join the alliance led by the U.S. to contain China.  While openly courting China and Russia at the start of his first term, Duterte now seems to be keeping his options open.  China’s Xi met with Duterte early in Duterte’s term and promised large economic investments.  Duterte’s response was to invite Japan to visit.  The Japanese, of course, upped the investment bidding.  When Trump came into office, one of the first world leaders he contacted was Duterte -- the two seem to share some elements of style.

Staying out of the American-led alliance will have predictable consequences. First, Chinese dominance will spread and become more overbearing.  With no allies, the Philippines will relearn Thucydides’ maxim -- “The strong will do as they will and the weak endure what they must.”  Society will chafe under Chinese dominance.  While not as direct as what Hong Kongers will see, the Chinese authoritarianism will not overlay peacefully the easygoing Filipino ways. While probably too big for the Tibetan model of control, the Chinese will redirect the Philippines to serve Communist interests.

But to throw in with the American alliance is risky too. Philippine history from 1942 to 1945 shows that American deterrence has failed before and could fail again.  It can be very painful to be caught between battling giants.  Who wants to be the Poland of the Pacific - again?

American strategy under Trump is slowly coming into focus.  First is to “nudge” China away from an export-driven economy to one serving their domestic markets.  Most developing countries eventual follow this path and China is behind the curve.  China under Xi has diverted the country’s profits from exports increasingly into military expenditures even when military threats to the country’s security seem remote and weak. Lacking that, China can be isolated from Western markets and starved for foreign exchange. From the outside, Chinese military expansion could only serve aggressive intents.

One of Trump’s intermediate strategic goals is to reorder global supply chains away from China.  The Philippines seems a natural replacement for displaced Chinese production. Let’s hope American tariff negotiators can open the doors to American markets once again, as we did in the 1920s, but this time to a broad range of industrial products and not just sugar.

But can American forces extend military protection to the Philippines?  Probably not from Guam, so forward bases on Philippines soil will be needed.  Plus, we need to show commitment by expanding our navy once again.  That said, a shooting war with China need not be fought at the Nine Dash Line or on their militarized reefs and shoals, nor would American troops need to land on Chinese territory.  From the Chinese perspective, their area-denial tactics in the South China Sea are necessary but not sufficient. American strategy would be to blockade China outa was able to redraw their Nine Dash Line to the east of the Philippines?  Instead of American bases on the west side of the islands, facing China, what if there were Chinese military bases on the east side, facing the U.S.?

Given Duterte’s track record as a savvy diplomat and knowing the cards he’s holding, I predict he will play both sides against the middle as long as he can, or until he hands power over to his successor.  That’s probably the smart thing to do.  But America needs to make it as easy and enticing as we can for the Philippines to join our alliance.  We have to offer a better deal economically, culturally, and militarily. America needs the Philippines as an ally.  Just as modern Poland has joined NATO, let’s hope the Philippines joins with us too.

Joseph Somsel hopes someday to retire to a pro-American Philippines.

Given China’s position as a classic Asian land power and America’s role as an oceanic hegemon,  a military challenge has emerged in the near seas close to China through which the essentials of modern industrial power flow – oil, to name just one.  That means the control of the South China Sea is the next step in the establishment of a New Chinese Empire.  As in 1938, when Poland lay between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, the Philippines is the weak point between the U.S. and China.

It is common knowledge that America intends to ring the South China Sea with putative allies -- South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. A goal of our foreign policy is to unite these countries into a defensive cordon.  Meanwhile the Chinese Communist Party seems to be doing what it can to antagonize the neighbors.  Its “Nine Dash Line” ocean aggrandizement, the militarization of shoals and reefs, the bald-faced, brute-force stealing of ocean resources, all should make clear that China is not a good neighbor.

American diplomatic efforts to solidify the front-line countries into a balancing force rely on their basic self-interests as we see them.  Our allies sometimes have different views and see complications that Americans may forget.  Increasing military cooperation between the Japanese and the South Koreans faces a long history of antagonisms and bitterness, including the literal “rape-rape” of the WWII comfort women.  The Vietnamese still remember what we did to try to prevent the current Communist regime from taking over the country.  Pieces of B-52s downed during the Christmas Raids of 1972 still adorn public parks in Hanoi. 

The country with the most difficult decision to make is the Philippines.  The key fact here is that the Philippines is the weakest link in the cordon.  While South Korea and Japan have modern navies and could become nuclear weapon states at will, Philippines has no evident capability.  Vietnam has already beaten back a Chinese army invasion in 1979. Taiwan has braced for invasion for decades.

To quantify the military weakness of the Philippines vs. China, the three largest, most capable ships in the Philippines navy are 40+-year-old former Coast Guard cutters gifted to the country from the U.S.  At 3,250 tons and after major retrofit, they are capable naval assets.  But the Chinese navy has 62 destroyers and frigates of 3,250 tons or larger – three versus 62 plus swarms of smaller warships and a dozen nuclear attack submarines.  A few new corvettes are being delivered to the Philippines from South Korean shipyards, but at 1,700 tons they are half the displacement of the repurposed cutters.

Economically, the Chinese economy increasingly dominates as purchaser of Philippines exports.  China and Hong Kong account for 35% of all export sales, increasingly semiconductors and electronics.  In contrast, the U.S. only buys 13% of Philippine exports.  With a per capita income of $3,280 a year but a growth rate of over 6%, the Philippines is officially a “newly industrializing economy,” thanks largely to neighboring China.  No longer can the Philippines even feed itself -- it increasingly has to import rice, the staple of the diet.

But World War II showed there were risks to alignment with America.  While the Japanese would have conquered the archipelago in any case, the pre-war promise of American defense was ultimately hollow, as the secret War Plan Orange conceded that America lacked the military power to resupply the islands while under Japanese attack.  Douglas MacArthur’s recapture of island was expensive for the U.S. military but the heaviest cost was to the Filipinos, who lost over 100,000 civilian deaths and saw Manila reduced to a smoking ruin, the most damaged of all Allied cities in WWII save Warsaw.

So today the Philippines finds itself with a growing commercial and military aggressor to its west and a dearth of strong friends.  The Chinese have long had active trade with the islands, back into pre-history.  Many of the Filipino elite have some Han blood mixed with Spanish and Malay.  Proximity to the Chinese economy has delivered solid economic growth.  But the Chinese have clearly violated international law in taking over marginal islands not far offshore and have blocked Filipino fishermen from traditional fishing grounds clearly in the economic zone of the Philippines.

My general sense is that most Filipinos are at least suspicious of Chinese intentions if not culturally hostile.  A major problems is the invasion of “shabu.” the local name for methamphetamine, considered to be largely smuggled from China.  Its spread is tearing at Filipino society and one of President Duterte’s most popular policies is shooting down shabu dealers.  President Obama was highly critical of Duterte’s drug control policy, which prompted the Duterte’s infamous retort that Obama was “a son of a whore” but his anti-drug policy remains very popular with Filipinos.

So the choice for the Philippines is becoming clear -- stay open and non-confrontational to China or join the alliance led by the U.S. to contain China.  While openly courting China and Russia at the start of his first term, Duterte now seems to be keeping his options open.  China’s Xi met with Duterte early in Duterte’s term and promised large economic investments.  Duterte’s response was to invite Japan to visit.  The Japanese, of course, upped the investment bidding.  When Trump came into office, one of the first world leaders he contacted was Duterte -- the two seem to share some elements of style.

Staying out of the American-led alliance will have predictable consequences. First, Chinese dominance will spread and become more overbearing.  With no allies, the Philippines will relearn Thucydides’ maxim -- “The strong will do as they will and the weak endure what they must.”  Society will chafe under Chinese dominance.  While not as direct as what Hong Kongers will see, the Chinese authoritarianism will not overlay peacefully the easygoing Filipino ways. While probably too big for the Tibetan model of control, the Chinese will redirect the Philippines to serve Communist interests.

But to throw in with the American alliance is risky too. Philippine history from 1942 to 1945 shows that American deterrence has failed before and could fail again.  It can be very painful to be caught between battling giants.  Who wants to be the Poland of the Pacific - again?

American strategy under Trump is slowly coming into focus.  First is to “nudge” China away from an export-driven economy to one serving their domestic markets.  Most developing countries eventual follow this path and China is behind the curve.  China under Xi has diverted the country’s profits from exports increasingly into military expenditures even when military threats to the country’s security seem remote and weak. Lacking that, China can be isolated from Western markets and starved for foreign exchange. From the outside, Chinese military expansion could only serve aggressive intents.

One of Trump’s intermediate strategic goals is to reorder global supply chains away from China.  The Philippines seems a natural replacement for displaced Chinese production. Let’s hope American tariff negotiators can open the doors to American markets once again, as we did in the 1920s, but this time to a broad range of industrial products and not just sugar.

But can American forces extend military protection to the Philippines?  Probably not from Guam, so forward bases on Philippines soil will be needed.  Plus, we need to show commitment by expanding our navy once again.  That said, a shooting war with China need not be fought at the Nine Dash Line or on their militarized reefs and shoals, nor would American troops need to land on Chinese territory.  From the Chinese perspective, their area-denial tactics in the South China Sea are necessary but not sufficient. American strategy would be to blockade China outa was able to redraw their Nine Dash Line to the east of the Philippines?  Instead of American bases on the west side of the islands, facing China, what if there were Chinese military bases on the east side, facing the U.S.?

Given Duterte’s track record as a savvy diplomat and knowing the cards he’s holding, I predict he will play both sides against the middle as long as he can, or until he hands power over to his successor.  That’s probably the smart thing to do.  But America needs to make it as easy and enticing as we can for the Philippines to join our alliance.  We have to offer a better deal economically, culturally, and militarily. America needs the Philippines as an ally.  Just as modern Poland has joined NATO, let’s hope the Philippines joins with us too.

Joseph Somsel hopes someday to retire to a pro-American Philippines.