RECENTLY, two defense experts from opposite sides of the world spoke of war with China. In Washington, Admiral Philip Davidson, the new chief of the Pacific Command in Hawaii, wrote to the US Congress that with its three man-made islands in the Spratlys, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”
Then, in Manila, Arroyo-era Defense Secretary and National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales raised the possibility of Chinese invasion. “China does not have a history of invading other countries, but it is not averse to using military might to settle territorial conflicts,” he wrote to Rappler. “A Chinese invasion is not unthinkable.”
Gonzales cites a possible Beijing concern over President Rodrigo Duterte ending his term in 2022, which may then lead to a new leadership hostile to China. If there were an invasion, he predicted that “within hours, the Chinese can destroy most of the country’s defense facilities and probably some of our cities.”
Let’s assess these comments and see if they hold water. Today, we look at the invasion scenario, and next Tuesday, war prospects in Asia.
In this assessment, it’s crucial to set aside biases and leanings for or against certain countries, so one can coldly weigh the geopolitical, security, and other factors in play.
Will the Chinese invade?
Gonzales cited Beijing’s fear of Duterte’s successor reversing his friendship with China. Can it happen?
Well, it did when then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd ended his predecessor Gloria Arroyo’s cordial relations with Beijing.
Arroyo had eased tensions by, among other things, quietly dealing with Chinese fishermen caught in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. But Aquino did the opposite, sending a navy frigate to arrest Chinese fishermen in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which he lost in the ensuring confrontation with China in April 2012.
To counter Chinese encroachment, Aquino forged the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014, to escalate American military deployment in the country, and give US forces access to our bases.
President Duterte has stalled EDCA implementation, rightly fearing that US forces in the country would attract foreign attack. Indeed, if America had facilities in the archipelago, they would have been threatened by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in his 2016-2017 brinkmanship with the US over his nuclear and ballistic weapons.
The Philippine threat to China
So, will China invade if it looks like the next administration would revive EDCA and allow the Philippines to become a platform for the 60 percent of US naval assets Washington wants to move to the region under its Pivot to Asia policy?
From our country, nuclear-capable cruise missiles can strike most of China and all of the South China Sea, where vital commodities pass, including 80 percent of Chinese oil imports. Indeed, fear of the US military buildup in the Philippines probably led the People’s Liberation Army to turn reefs into man-made islands ready for PLA use.
That the US aims to use Philippine bases in conflicts elsewhere in Asia can be gleaned from its first EDCA facility at the Cesar Basa Air Base in Pampanga, closest to potential flashpoints in Korea, Taiwan, and the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, held by Japan but also claimed by China.
The Pampanga facility is not as helpful as other bases earmarked under EDCA, especially where the Philippines needs US assistance most: maritime frictions in the Spratlys, to which the Puerto Princesa air base is closest; and disaster relief in the Visayas and Mindanao, where Cebu and Cagayan de Oro are best situated.
If EDCA can provoke Chinese attack, why doesn’t President Duterte abrogate it? He can do that on his own, since EDCA is not a treaty, but an executive agreement, as the Supreme Court had long affirmed.
Maybe Duterte is keeping EDCA as an option, even allowing some construction, to serve notice he can let US forces in if the Chinese move too aggressively. For now, though, China relations are solid, while EDCA is stalled.
Attack, maybe; invasion, no
But if the Philippines does let US forces deploy massively, China will respond.
For starters, there will be warnings about harboring forces threatening China. Economic pressure comes next. Chinese aid, credit, and investment will dry up, and trade restrictions will multiply. So might curbs on overseas Filipino workers, including more than 120,000 in Hong Kong.
The PLA can escalate deployment in waters around the Philippines, even the Pacific, including Philippine Rise. Meanwhile, cooperation on such concerns as drugs, transnational crime, and piracy might grind to a halt. And China’s immense diplomatic clout, as the leading trading partner and funding source of most nations, could further put the squeeze on the Philippines.
This scenario is not speculation; the US did worse to Cuba for half a century after the island nearly hosted Russian nuclear missiles in 1962. Don’t expect easier treatment if we bring in American forces capable of nuking China and blocking its access to oil and gas — a war strategy urged by the 2016 US Army-sponsored RAND think-tank report, “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable.”
The report also warned that primary wartime targets would be American aircraft carriers and air bases in Asia. That would include facilities in Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Puerto Princesa, Basa Air Base, and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, if EDCA goes ahead.
Will Beijing mount an invasion, too, as Washington tried but failed in Cuba?
No, mainly because America and its allies would wage full-scale war to prevent the Philippines falling into China’s hands and becoming its regional military platform. Against Western and Japanese naval and air forces, any invading force would be crushed even before it landed.
Given the foregoing scenario, the Philippines must keep foreign forces out, enhance ties with all powers, and build our own defense capabilities. Exactly what President Duterte is doing.
(We express our profound condolences over the passing of former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez, a dear friend, an esteemed Cabinet colleague, and a most insightful mind in security issues. May he rest in peace.)