The dispute in the South China Sea over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights is complex and may even be among the most intractable international relations problems confronting the region. The fact that it is the first of its kind in history, and hence, no available road map nor precedent cases for how it should be managed or resolved makes the issue even more challenging. Add further the flavor of rising nationalism that is usually triggered among local populations when the perception of or actual usurpation of territory happens and you have a powder keg waiting for a trigger.
China’s uncompromising stance in asserting its nine-dash-line claim in the entire South China Sea (SCS) triggers the counter stance of the other claimants. The military buildup of South East Asian (SEA) states especially those involved in the SCS dispute was notable. This is due to the age-old dictum in realpolitik that “a capable and credible military would deter aggressive behavior from other states.”
Vietnam has and continues to acquire modern defense technologies from countries like Russia and India. It is in fact the only claimant state that maintains a significant military presence in the islands and features it claims in SCS. Indonesia has stepped up its military build-up, and instead of the usual inward-looking approach, it has begun asserting its presence both in SCS as well as in the Sulu Sea, especially during and after the Marawi siege in the Philippines in 2017. Sulu sea is believed to be the backdoor corridor used by foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) to enter the Philippines.
The Philippines also began to aggressively pursue its military modernization program that was lackadaisically pursued for two decades, after the 2012 standoff with China in Panatag/Scarborough Shoal. The confrontation was a stark wake-up call for the Philippine military on how severely behind its military capability is; it was also a realization that its Big Brother, the US may not be the “Big Bro” the military has expected it to be since it wavered to categorically declare that it has the Philippines’ back in times of need. And so, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) began to fast-track the capability buildup especially of its navy and air force. However, military modernization is always contingent on the economic development of the country, i.e. the bigger the income the Philippines generates means bigger budget for AFP modernization and vice versa.
The Philippine Constitution puts an additional limit — the military cannot be given the biggest share in the budget-pie since that share is reserved for the education sector. The military hence has to find alternative ways and means to generate additional funds to purchase its equipment and weapon system. The Philippine military is among the weakest in SEA in terms of materiel.
Moreover, an additional challenge for the AFP is the fact that it remains tied to the internal security operations against domestic armed threat groups. The Philippines is currently in various stages of the peace process with different armed groups. While government anticipates a peaceful settlement and conclusion with Bangsamoro groups, the MILF and MNLF, violent armed groups(VAG) and terrorist groups continue to proliferate in the same operational space as the MILF and MNLF, creating a situation where germination and cross pollination of ideas and grievance become possible. VAGs have proven to be resilient and dodgy as they continue to terrorize civilian population with bombings, despite the existence of martial law in the entire Mindanao area.
Armed extremism is a pressing issue not just in the Philippines but in Southeast Asia. In 2017, the Philippines and Thailand were ranked 12th and 16th respectively in the Global Terrorism Index 2017 published by the Institute for Economics and Peace. Terrorist cells continue to operate in Indonesia and Malaysia. The attempt by the ISIS affiliate Daulah Islamiya alliance (composed of Abu Sayyaf-Basilan, BIFF-Turaife Group, and Maute group), to have Marawi as its controlled territory jolted the rest of SEA since the attempt suggests significant presence of ISIS in the region. The fact that Southeast Asia is divided between land-locked areas with porous borders (insular) and states with vast shorelines and sea lanes (peninsular), provide effective shelter and mobility corridor for the ISIS groups to grow in the region.
What to do? Despite the military buildup of SEA states, they all pale in comparison with China’s military expenditure, with its defense spending quintupled over the last decade. The region hence must put its act together. A balanced and strategic approach is needed: For the South China Sea dispute, have a stronger call supported by different state regional groups, for a binding Code of Conduct, a moratorium on provocative activities, and greater cooperation between claimants.
Forge “people-to-people” cooperative relationships based on trust and confidence between and among the domestic populations of the states in dispute. Increase the multilateral cooperation and dialogue activities between and among states. ASEAN-sponsored training and dialogue can facilitate people-to-people cooperation; while bilateral and multilateral cooperative arrangements like the Philippine-Indonesia border agreement and the Trilateral Maritime Patrol Agreement among the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia to control cross-border trade as well as incidents of piracy and lawlessness in the Sulu sea are good examples of these.