May 16, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 599

The Philippines Standing Up To China: A Stronger Philippines Means A Stronger Line Of Defense For A Free And Open Indo-Pacific

May 16, 2024 | By Andrew J. Masigan*
China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 599

Strength is standing your ground. Strength is restraint.

A new Philippines is emerging. Gone is the era of a cowardly Philippine government whose Chief Executive trembled at the very shadow of Xi Jinping. So whimpering was former President Rodrigo Duterte toward the Chinese strongman that he was willing to give in to his many demands, however treasonous.[1] Among these demands were that the Philippines not invoke the final and legally binding decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled that the disputed features in the South China Sea are indeed part of the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.[2] Duterte belittled the Hague's ruling, calling it "just a piece of paper." Duterte, who is largely seen as a traitor by the people of the Philippines, parroted the words of the Chinese Ambassador in Manila.

Today, the Philippine president is standing his ground. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. minced no words at the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta,[3] where he condemned China's illegal grab and militarization of the South China Sea.[4] At that summit, President Marcos declared that not a single inch of sovereign Philippine territory would be subsumed by any nation. Nor would he allow the Philippines to be bullied, taunted, or intimidated. He acknowledged the validity of the Philippines' victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration and vowed to enforce it. Marcos' declaration came at a time of intense intimidation from China.

A U.S. Army Mid-Range Capability (MRC) Launcher arrives as part of the capability's first deployment into theater on Northern Luzon, Philippines, April 8, 2024. (Source: U.S. ARMY PACIFIC)

China's April 30 Water Cannon Attack Against Philippine Vessels

The April 30 run-in between the Chinese and Philippine Coast Guard in the Scarborough Shoal (locally known as Bajo de Masinloc) was a painful sight. The world watched as Chinese coastguard attacked with water canons the Philippine BRP Bagacay and a vessel owned by the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries.[5] Using powerful jet streams, the Chinese attempted to destroy the communication and navigational equipment of the Philippine ships. It was a hostile act that endangered the lives of Filipino sailors.

Rather than respond tit-for-tat with water cannons, the Philippine National Security Council and President Marcos issued orders to stand down. Although seen by many as passive, it was the correct move for three reasons.

First, the Chinese are intentionally taunting the Philippines to elicit an aggressive reaction. An aggressive reaction is exactly what Beijing needs to justify an escalation. The Philippines refuses to fall into this Chinese trap.

Second, every time the Philippines changes its actions or responses, the Chinese escalate their posture several fold. For instance, when the Philippines adds two coastguard vessels to patrol the waters, the Chinse will add six. The Philippines refuses to provoke further escalation as its aim is to ease tensions.

Third, the Philippines filed 153 diplomatic protests over China's bad behavior since the start of Marcos' presidency. The Philippines enjoys a reputation of maintaining the high moral ground and behaving in accordance with international law. This reputation will be compromised if it acts in the same manner as its tormentor. It will make the Philippines no different from the barbaric and badly behaving Chinese.

Former Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio agrees with the decision of the National Security Council not to fight fire with fire (or water for water, in this case).[6] The correct response, said Carpio, is to file a case against China at the International Tribunal for the Laws of the Seas. In the international court of law, the fight will be on a level playing field.

The Chinese can only go as far as their intimidation tactics do. The moment there is a single Filipino fatality, the ironclad Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the U.S. and the Philippines goes into effect and the Chinese will have to face the Philippines, the U.S. and the axis of like-minded nations in combat. This is a situation the Chinese cannot afford at this time.

It takes an existential crisis to bring out the best in a country and its military. We are seeing this in the Philippines. The country is growing in strength, resolve, and military might.

President Marcos' Approved A $35 Billion Budget To Modernize The Philippine Armed Forces

President Marcos approved a $35 billion budget to modernize the Philippine Armed Forces, from which the Navy is getting the lion's share.[7] The president approved a lengthy wish list of equipment and weapons to bolster the military's capabilities over the next decade. The Philippines is also mobilizing to build a new defense industrial estate to locally manufacture armaments.

This comes on top of the assistance the Philippines receives from like-minded friends, all of whom condemn China's hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

Last month, the Philippines received the first batch of Brahmos Supersonic Cruise Missiles from India. This is the first of three missile systems, each rigged with two launchers, a radar, and a command center.[8]

In November 2023, a new defense cooperation framework was signed between Japan and the Philippines called the Official Security Assistance.[9] Its objective is to deepen defense and security cooperation, including technology and hardware transfers. As a start, Japan is providing the Philippines with four air surveillance radars for which one was already delivered. This is in addition to 12 vessels provided to the Philippine coast guard, among others.[10]

The U.S. positioned its ground-based Typhon mid-range missile system at a military base in the island of Luzon, north of the Philippines,[11] from which the Taiwan Strait and Fujian province of the Chinese mainland are well within the Typhon's 1,600-kilometer range. This follows Balikatan 2024, the largest joint military exercise, which involved 17,000 fighters, including soldiers from Australia and France. Fourteen like-minded countries observed the exercise.[12]

In addition, the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, a light multiple rocket launcher, was recently acquired by the Philippine Armed Forces. This compliments SSM-700K C-Star ship-launched sea-skimming surface-to-surface anti-ship cruise missile.[13]

And then there is the Trilateral Partnership between the U.S., Japan, and the Philippines.[14] The Philippines hopes to generate around $100 billion in investments in the next five to ten years, following the Washington summit.[15] Investments will come in the form of physical and digital infrastructure, semiconductor manufacturing, defense hardware, mining, energy, and advanced technologies.

Meanwhile, a bill was filed in the U.S. Senate to grant the Philippines $2.5 billion over the next five years to boost its defenses.[16] A stronger Philippines means a stronger line of defense for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

All this compliments the Philippines' Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S. and defense alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

Firm resistance, strategic restraint and military fortification characterizes the new Philippines as it bravely faces China.

*Andrew J. Masigan is the MEMRI China Media Studies Project Special Advisor. He is a Manila-based economist, businessman, and political columnist for The Philippine Star. Masigan's articles in MEMRI are also published in The Philippine Star.


[3] Speaking at the 43rd ASEAN Summit Retreat, on September 5, 2-23, Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. said: "Our vision for the South China Sea is a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity. Today sadly this remains a distant reality. For our part, the Philippines will continue to work with all the countries to foster a rules-based international order. We remain committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with international law. We will continue to uphold and exercise freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, including, of course, the 1982 UNCLOS. But let me be clear. We do not seek conflict; but it is our duty as citizens and as leaders to always rise to meet any challenge to our sovereignty, to our sovereign rights, and our maritime jurisdictions in the South China Sea. No country would expect any less. No country would do any less. The Philippines firmly rejects misleading narratives that frame the disputes in the South China Sea solely through the lens of strategic competition between two powerful countries. This not only denies us our independence and our agency, but it also disregards our own legitimate interests. We once more call upon all parties for self-restraint on activities that complicate disputes in the South China Sea. We must not undermine regional peace, stability, and security. We cannot emphasize enough that actions, not words, should be the ultimate measure of our commitment to securing peace and stability in the South China Sea. Anything else simply does not suffice. We therefore seek your support for the operationalization of practical measures such as the ADMM Guidelines for Maritime Interaction, which we envision will be expanded to our external partners in due time..."

At the 26th ASEAN-China Summit, on September 6, 2023, Philippine President Marcos said: "The Philippines therefore continues to uphold the primacy of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as the framework within which all activities in the seas and oceans are conducted. We once again reaffirm our commitment to the rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes."

At the 26th ASEAN-Japan Summit, on September 6, 2023, President Marcos added: "I commend the combination of hard work and vision that resulted in the Joint Statement that has now come to be known as The Spirit of Camp David. The Statement consolidates a common security agenda among Japan, the United States, and South Korea, on what are arguably the most problematic issues in the region that undermine regional peace and prosperity, and that include but are not limited to supporting the free and open international order based on the rule of law, opposing any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, also the militarization of reclaimed features in the South China Sea is of great concern, as well as the concern for continued illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that affects both our fisherfolk. As maritime nations, both the Philippines and Japan not only share the common interest of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, but also in enhancing our resiliency in responding to maritime disasters.", September 6, 2023.

[4] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 11243, China's Militarization Of The South China Sea, April 2, 2024.

[5], April 30, 2024.

[6], April 30 2024.

[7], January 30, 2024.

[8], April 23, 2024.

[9], November 9, 2023.

[10], November 04, 2023.

[11], April 16, 2024.

[12];, April 22, 2024.

[13], May 10, 2024;, May 16, 2024.

[15], April 19, 2024.

[16], April 11, 2024;,its%20defenses%20against%20Chinese%20pressure, April 11, 2024.

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