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Will America help the Philippines in Scarborough Shoal?


Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian

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.

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  • Terry

    So the Philippines will only have Duterte and themselves to blame, the US can not do anything unless the Philippines is attacked by protecting themselves. Filipinos better stand up for what is yours, the US and Japan will be at your side but only if your defending what’s yours.

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    • Robert Uy

      That is a big IF. What if we got attacked and the US will not help? Remember world war 2? It took 5 years for the US to fight the japanese after emperial japan occupied philippines. Thousands of filipinos died fighting for american cause. We know better now, we cant expect the US to help.

      • angpilipinongayon

        Especially now that China may use its WMDs against any potential enemy (US/Japan) or it may use its anti ship missiles. If I were the U.S. or Japan, when a conflict arises between PH and China, I will just contact first China and plead them not to escalate further to a full conflict, I will not yet invoke the MDT immediately for the sake of national security. Let us remember that the U.S. will consider first its security before any country and rightly so.

        First, it depends, when conflict happened in WPS only, not from our landmass, then the U.S. will contact China and PH accordingly, not to escalate it further. So a full conflict scenario between PH and China is very unlikely, even if DU30 will agree to its critics. Second, when a hypothetical conflict will result on a major escalation and now will involve mainland Philippines, imagine what will happen? The U.S. may still plead with China to stop even if it will move its military assets to depend the Philippines at the same time to invoke MDT. Let us visualize Philippines at this time when Luzon and VisMin are now involved into a conflict, we do not have missiles to depend our landmass. We do not have enough air assets to counter China, MDT was not yet activated, but our cities are now destroyed. Makati Business district ruined. So even if MDT was activated, our country is already a war zone with thousands or even millions already dead.

        Therefore Duterte’s move is right.

        • Juan de Sarangani

          Your treatise were elongated speculations, from which you made an absolute conclusion?

          • angpilipinongayon

            Just my opinion. I derived my opinion with the undeniable fact that U.S. national security is more important than MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty). The U.S. or China will ultimately avoid a full conflict against each other, as I said that a full conflict between PH and China is very highly unlikely.

            Feel free to refute my opinion.

          • angpilipinongayon

            Look, people like Justice Carpio was so eager to urge the President to send the Navy in Panatag, and so easy to tell us that if China attacks the Navy, just invoke the MDT. Is this really what Justice Carpio wanted to do? What if Antonio Carpio is the president, will he do what he was suggested to DU30?

            This is a million dollar question for those who agree with the critics of Duterte.

    • angpilipinongayon

      Do the math. MTD is there, period. MDT’s only caveat is how and when America is going to help and in what circumstance. Your mindset is a typical colonial mentality, the very source of our problems. Singapore’s doctrine is DIPLOMACY at all times then if there is no way out, destroy the enemy, and that is what we should be doing, but we cannot destroy an enemy at the caliber of China. So posturing a friendship move is the best, than making a war zone and worst than Libya and Syria, before any hypothetical help will come. Remember, U.S. national security is more important than MDT, it will not help the Philippines, when its communication line with China like like creating an agreement that China will not to use WMDs in its conflict before America will enter into war saving PH in accordance to MDT.

      We should criticize Duterte under from a neutral perspective in his handling with China. Hatred against Duterte is a distortion field. Some people will push Duterte to have a stronger stance against China, making the country very vulnerable economically and militarily.

  • DanteCatalino Garcia

    The US will not go to war with China over our problems with China.

  • Jr Eutropio Felipe Acma

    If the American business interests are threatened, then they will go to war. It is as simple as that. They consider our country as their outpost in the Asian Continent and Europe. They were actively posturing after the WW2 but, after the Japanese have taken-over their mainland businesses and technologies, they ingress. But still they will protect the remnants!

    At that, our President is right in dealing with China Bilaterally.

    China is also aware of the “Ovals-of-influence” syndrome of Genghis Khan. They are cautious of over-stepping the bounds.

    What is left is the ‘Win-Win Situation which we presently are exploiting.

  • Juana

    Can the good professor please write an article on The Treaty of Paris, Article III.

  • Tom

    They will protect the Philippines the same way they protected the people of Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine. Just hide and watch how they will soon destroy South Korea by protecting them. The Philippines and Japan are just Pawns in their game of domination