By Richard Javad Heydarian
Washington, DC, United States — In the past few days, I had the chance to exchange views with senior experts and (current and former) policy-makers in America’s seat of power. A recurring topic in our conversation was the Scarborough Shoal, specifically whether China will reclaim it anytime soon and, more importantly, whether we can count on Americans for assistance. The following are some of my reflections and analyses.
The first thing to keep in mind is that America’s interest in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) transcends its alliance with the Philippines. Washington has a vital interest in preventing any other power, namely China, from dominating sea lines of communications such as the South China Sea, which is critical to global trade and undergirds America’s naval hegemony in Asia.
Under the so-called ‘offshore balancing’ strategy, both Britain and (later) America, in the past two centuries, have tried to prevent any continental power in Europe or/and Eurasian landmass to dominate their respective regions: (Bismarck and Nazi) Germany, (Napoleonic) France, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union were all victims of this strategy. Today, China is the target.
Second, America’s interest in the region transcend the idiosyncrasies of specific administrations, whether Donald Trump in the White House or Rodrigo Duterte in Malacañang. American grand strategy in Asia is a long-term, institutionalized mindset, which is shaped and preserved by the national security establishment.
Third, consequential and high-stakes policy questions such as ‘whether America will risk war over the Scarborough Shoal” generally don’t have clear-cut, black and white answers. Much will depend on the specific situation, threat perceptions, operational realities, domestic politics in America, strength of US-Philippine bilateral alliance, and the military resolve of the potential aggressor, namely China.
Nonetheless, one former American admiral told me “America can’t want Scarborough Shoal more than the Philippines.” I suspect the sentiment came in light of President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial remark that his country can’t do much if China moves ahead with construction activities in the Scarborough Shoal.
America has made it clear that it is neutral on the status of sovereignty of disputed features, while the Obama administration failed to clarify whether there is any specific scenario where American could engage in armed intervention.
In the 1970s, legendary American diplomat Henry Kissinger, for instance, made it clear that the “MDT may apply in event of attack on [Philippine] forces deployed to third countries, which. . . is fundamentally different from a case where deployment is for purpose of enlarging Philippine territory.”
It was not until the Carter and Clinton administration when we got more clarity, when Washington explained that the MDT could be activated if Filipino vessels and ships come under attack in the Pacific.
This means if and only if the Philippines puts up a fight and tries to prevent China from reclaiming the Scarborough Shoal can we expect potential intervention by America. Japan, which is extremely concerned about Chinese domination of the South China Sea, could also be involved in a hypothetical kinetic action scenario.
Under the newly passed collective self-defense bill, Japan can provide logistical support to any American military intervention in the South China Sea on behalf of its ally, the Philippines.
But if the Philippines agrees to a joint development agreement or/and adopts a policy acquiescence, there isn’t much that America can do. So America’s commitment to the Philippines is contingent on how much are we committed to defending our territorial integrity and interests.