The Philippines' strategy of provocation

Tom Fowdy
The country is playing up the South China Sea issue with an orchestrated strategy to solicit enhanced support from the United States.
Tom Fowdy

Recently, China's relationship with the Philippines has begun to deteriorate. The primary cause is over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Although this dispute is not new anyway, its recent escalation comes amidst a decision by the Philippines' presidential administration, led by Ferdinand Macros Jr, to reorientate his foreign policy back toward the United States, reversing a middle-ground position held by his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.

This change in policy has resulted in many deliberately staged provocations using boats to enter the disputed waters which have tried to push the Chinese coast guard into making a reaction. On October 25, Joe Biden then affirmed the United States would be prepared to go to war to defend the Philippines.

The Philippines is playing up the issue with an orchestrated strategy to solicit enhanced support from the United States, which is able to use the conflict as a justification to enhancing their military presence in the so-called "Indo-Pacific region" to China's own detriment.

The Ferdinand Macros Jr administration had began its tenure by instantly granting the United States more military bases, specifically those to the north of the country in geographic proximity toward China's Taiwan. The strategy the Philippines is using is a similar one used by many state and non-state actors who are facing a larger opponent, of which the Western media are hostile to. This tactic, known as Jiujitsu politics, is an art of provocation and activism. It is designed to deliberately act aggressively toward a target, while marketing certain political goals and objectives, with the intention of pushing that specific opponent to react with force against them. On doing so, the provocateur then turns to the Western mainstream media and presents themselves as the victim of oppression by the larger actor, and does this to subsequently draw in external support and attention to its cause, sensationalizing the story or event as a one-sided narrative in good or evil terms.

Utilizers of Jiujitsu political strategies against China have included Hong Kong rioters in 2019, the current Taiwan authorities and in this case, the Philippines. In each instance, these groups, be they state or non-state actors, seek to challenge China's red lines in a way over matters of sovereignty which is unreasonable and force Chinese government to reassert its position, which is then subsequently used to appeal for support from the United States.

A greater narrative is then created which accuses China of being "aggressive" or "coercive" even though in reality, its position on given issues have always been the same. For example, the South China Sea issue is very old, so is Taiwan, but by provoking China and challenging its positions, they create the media impression that Beijing is acting aggressive or unreasonable.

The main root of this current conflict with the Philippines is because the country has made the decision to reset its foreign policy. Previously, Rodrigo Duterte pursued friendly relations with China. Even though these disputes were still outstanding, the decision was made not to put political emphasis on escalation and instead secure compromise. During this period, the Philippines behaved as a more independent political actor, seeking good friendships with all major powers including China, Russia, the US and India. Duterte also understood that China was a very important partner in its own national development. Therefore, his administration chose to downplay a 2016 arbitration ruling pushed by his predecessor who sought to try and invalidate China's nine-dash-line.

However, the outstanding problem remains that the United States continues to have a large military and cultural dominance over the Philippines. The country was until 1946 an outright American colony, and it has been a treaty ally which has hosted a US military presence ever since. Through his father Ferdinand Marcos Sr, the current Ferdinand Marcos Jr represents the pro-US faction of the Philippines. He has placed the escalation of territorial disputes on the agenda again with the goal of using it to create negative publicity for China, pleasing the US, and therefore procuring more military support for Washington.

Given this, China should not give up on pursuing diplomacy with the Philippines, as difficult as that may sound. It might be reminded that the biggest beneficiary of conflict in the South China Sea is the US, and the Philippines may need to understand the United States will use them as a proxy to initiate trouble, and then bear the costs of whatever may come next.

(The author, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, is an English analyst on international relations. The views are his own.)

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