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Manila warned of China moves amid Ukraine war

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By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES should mind a potentially bigger militarization of the South China Sea by China as the US and its allies are kept busy by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, foreign policy experts said at the weekend.

“Watch out for China,” Jaime B. Naval, a political science professor from the University of the Philippines, said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “It advanced its South China Sea presence even during the pandemic, and the moment it calculates that the regional and extra-regional powers are distracted by Ukraine, it can embark on more adventurous acts.”

China claims more than 80% of the disputed waterway that overlaps with the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Each year, trillions of dollars of trade flow through the sea, which is also rich in fish and gas.

No one can afford to be busy with two wars in different regions at the same time, Mr. Naval said. Countries across the globe, including the US, support a United Nation-backed ruling in 2016 that voided China’s nine-dash line sea claims based on a 1940s map.

Russia has launched a devastating attack by air, land and sea on Ukraine, a European democracy of 44 million people, and its forces are on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv. President Vladimir Putin denied for months he would invade his neighbor, but then he tore up a peace deal and sent forces across borders in Ukraine’s north, east and south.

“Since they’re busy elsewhere, they won’t have the time, resources, energy and attention to somehow actively engage in what we’re doing here,” he told BusinessWorld in a separate Zoom call.

This move does not necessarily have to be a physical war, Mr. Naval said. “We’re not living in a situation where you have to physically assault or invade a country to enforce your will. That could be done through other means.”

The Chinese Embassy did not immediately reply to an e-mail and chat seeking comments.

China believes it can dominate the Philippines economically, retired US Navy Captain Carl O. Schuster told a virtual forum at the weekend.

“They can gain what they need from the Philippines by slowly taking over coastal islands, on one hand, and establishing economic partnerships with key members of the Philippine elite so they achieve an economic domination that allows them to direct Philippine policy,” he added.

Citing Japan’s invasion of the Philippines in World War II, he noted that it was clear that the Japanese occupation had proven to be very expensive because the Philippine resistance lasted during the entire war.

The Japanese army was also being bled out. China will look back at this and think that doing the same would be too costly.

“China prefers to go after easy meat, so I don’t see a full-scale invasion in the Philippines,” Mr. Schuster said. “What I see is like little rat chews, little bites along the edge until they’ve taken the territory that gives them a stranglehold on you.”

“China’s not really interested in ruling the Philippines,” he said. “China’s interested in driving the Philippines to behave the way China wants the Philippines to behave in its relations to China.”

“China’s game is to win without actually fighting in dealing with the other claimant states,” said Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University.

“You try to buy your opponent,” he said via Zoom. “You create an image that you’re so powerful that others will not challenge you.”

The South China Sea issue, he added, can only become more complicated as there remain tensions in the East China Sea, as well as the Taiwan straits.

Mr. Schuster cited the possibility of China halting its “bullying” in the South China Sea as Filipinos choose a new president this year. It might focus first on a possible wealth and joint exploration deal with the incoming government to gain favor, he added.

China would prioritize its own interests either way, said Herman Joseph S. Kraft, who heads the University of the Philippines Department of Political Science.

“The Chinese have their own agenda in the South China Sea that won’t be dictated to by Philippine national elections,” she said in a Viber message.

“But if there is no need for them to act assertively and or aggressively in the West Philippine Sea, then it is more than likely that China will not be initiating anything in the West Philippine Sea that will bring attention to the dispute,” he added.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s successor should diversify economic partnerships, Mr. Kraft said.

Before Mr. Duterte came to the picture, the Philippines was not as dependent on China and could weather economic pressure, he said. Now, Chinese economic pressure can be felt more easily, though still not to the extent that vital sectors would be fatally affected.

Mr. Duterte pursued closer trade and investment ties with China since 2016. He did not speak about asserting Philippine rights in the South China Sea until his last year in office.

The Philippines should focus on expanding its economy to cut Chinese leverage, Mr. Schuster said. “Power leverage over the next 15 years is going to be driven by economic developments rather than the military. If the military is a shield, think of economics as your sword.”

“You need to be strong enough to be expensive to mess with,” he said of military strength. “You don’t have to be strong enough to win.”

“If your economy were to grow and reduce your dependence on Chinese markets, you’d be in a much stronger position,” he said. “That’s where allies, I think, should weigh in.”

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