The Philippines outlined its red lines. If China crosses them, it is adamant it will go to war. What will this mean for the world’s most dangerous conflict?
In another policy U-turn, the Filipino government traced its “red lines” in the South China Sea. Foreign Secretary Cayetano outlined the government’s new position in a recent speech. He described three inviolable red lines that, if crossed, would lead to war with China.
What are the red lines?
Cayetano and Duterte’s first red line refers to the Scarborough Shoal. The shoal sits within 100 miles of the Philippine archipelago. Any Chinese attempt to build on the Philippine-claimed shoal will result in repercussions.
The second inviolable red line protects the Second Thomas Shoal. The shoal sits within the Filipino-claimed territories. A handful of Filipino marines currently protect the Philippines’ interests in the area.
Finally, Cayetano warned of repercussions if China begins drilling in Filipino-claimed territory. He said that the Philippines would not tolerate the syphoning off of oil and gas in the West Philippine Sea. Adding that Duterte would go to war over it if necessary.
In his final statement, Cayetano put his job on the line. He promised to resign if the Philippines loses any more territory to Beijing.
The announcement represents a shift in Duterte’s South China Sea policy
Duterte has downplayed the Philippines’ territorial claims. He has made no reference to the 2016 tribunal that upheld Manila’s claims over Beijing’s. He has also lectured other claimants on the importance of being “meek” and “humble”.
Why the U-turn? Part of the reason is that Duterte’s amicable neighbour policy has not yielded results. Beijing has strengthened its military position in recent months. It has deployed nuclear-capable H-6k bombers to Woody Island. I also carried out extensive military exercises on nearby reefs.
On the Spratly Islands, China installed radar jamming equipment. In the Philippine-claimed Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief reefs, it deployed surface-to-air-missiles. Chinese submarines and warships patrol the area. China has responded to Duterte’s silence with hostility. It has taken every measure it could to expand its reach and reclamation efforts in the region.
The timing of Duterte’s U-turn was calculated. Duterte chose an opportune moment to revisit his South China Sea policy. Left-wing critics have raised concerns about Duterte’s inaction towards Chinese militarisation. US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis also reasserted the US government’s opposition to Chinese militarisation in the region in May.
Will tough words translate into firm action?
The Duterte administration does not shy away from using colourful and emotive language. However, it does not always translate into strong action. If Beijing has reason to believe the red lines are just talk, it is unlikely to halt its reclamation efforts.
There are signs Duterte will reinforce his red lines with military action. The Filipino government began repairing existing military facilities on the contested Thitu Islands. The US and Philippines also recently carried out military exercises near Scarborough Shoal.
It is unlikely Duterte will embark on a campaign of large-scale military acquisition. But these are gestures intended to show Beijing that Duterte is serious about what he says. He wants the world to see the “meek” and “humble” Duterte has gone.
What will this mean for the South China Sea conflict?
Duterte’s new stance will put him at odds with China’s South China Sea objectives. Beijing has made its mission statement clear. It wants control of the resources lying beneath the region’s turquoise waters.
If he is as committed to his red lines as he wants the world to believe, the region could be on the brink of war. However, war is not an option for either side. The Philippines is no match for the Chinese military. Its US allies would be unlikely to risk American lives and enter a war on the side of the Philippines. War is also not part of Beijing’s strategy to assume control of the region.
More likely, Duterte’s posturing up is part of a broader strategy. He wants to appear tough at home to silence critics. He also wants to apply pressure to China to agree to the joint development of resources. He has long touted for shared resource exploitation as a solution to the crisis. He fears total Chinese control over the region’s resources.
But another policy U-turn will have damaged investor confidence
The policy flip-flop may help silence critics. However, it will do nothing for investor confidence. Instead of offering stability, the Duterte administration has made several high-profile policy U-turns. This has damaged the Philippines standing in investors eyes.
Most emerging equity markets have been enjoying growth periods. But the Philippines’ equity markets have been selling off.
Duterte has made his move. It is now up to China to respond. It remains to be seen whether Beijing will heed Duterte’s warnings. The threats may be empty. Duterte may not have the inclination to wage war. But if China runs roughshod over Duterte’s red lines, it will incur more global pressure. Thanks to the 2016 ruling, the international community is not on Beijing’s side. This could give Duterte’s red lines the clout they need to get Beijing to slow its reclamation attempts.