Rethinking the Philippines’ Deterrence in the South China Sea

The Whitsun Reef incident in March-May 2021, where at least 220 Chinese “fishing ships” anchored near the reef under dubious pretexts, was a watershed moment in the Philippines’ ongoing maritime dispute with China. This event reinvigorated the Philippine debate on the wisdom of maintaining an accommodative policy with a country seen as being dismissive of the Philippines’ territorial rights, that transgresses international law, and displays an unwillingness to compromise. It also exposed the destabilizing actions of the Chinese maritime militia and validated the importance of coordinated maritime patrols of the Philippine Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force in securing the country’s waters and asserting its territorial claims.

Finally, it emphasized the urgent need to have a “fallback” in case diplomacy fails. That fallback, as expressed by some commentators, is strong deterrence.

The Deterrence Conundrum

Deterrence is a term loosely used in Philippine security discourse, with various iterations of the concept emerging in the past decade. For example, President Benigno Aquino III’s 2013 State of the Nation Address mentioned “minimum credible deterrence,” without elaborating. In 2015, senior Philippine government officials aimed for “credible deterrence,” dropping the adjective “minimum,” but not entirely – “minimum credible deterrence” was mentioned as late as July 2019.

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Another related term, “[minimum] credible defense” appeared in the 2017-2022 Philippine National Security Policy and the Philippines National Defense Strategy (NDS) issued in 2018. “Minimum credible defense” is conceptualized, at least by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, as the capacity “to face intruders” sufficiently armed with weaponry such as “ships [and] missiles so that [the Philippines] won’t be bullied, or … that [foreign powers] can just intrude in our territory without being challenged by our troops.”

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While there is widespread agreement that the country needs the capacity to deter Chinese aggression, as evidenced by continued attempts to complete the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization program, deterrence as a concept and in practice is something that has not been rigorously examined by Manila. The prerequisite metrics and theories that would make Philippine deterrence credible in relation to specific threats are also absent from the discussion.

Another peculiarity is that for Manila “deterrence,” or “minimum credible defense,” is the Philippines’ ability to face an aggressor when hostile acts are already underway, rather than the ability to dissuade another state from taking actions that are hostile or detrimental. This is something that defense officials, including then-Chief of Staff General Cirilito Sobejana, have tried to change.

While this is not unreasonable, given the Philippines’ well-known material gaps and funding difficulties, accepting this reality condemns the Philippines to a reactive position and dependence on external sources for its fulfillment. Leaning on allies and strategic partners as if they are the sole credible instruments of deterrence is problematic for a variety of political, legal, and strategic reasons. Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin seems to acknowledge the need to build more indigenous capacity to enhance deterrence.

Gray zone operations – those calculated to achieve political objectives while falling beneath the threshold of war – by their nature, complicate the strategic calculations in finding the best tools to deal with aggressive activities. Given the limits of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States – which stipulates that the two nations “will consult together … whenever in the opinion of either of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of either of the Parties is threatened by external armed attack in the Pacific” — it is problematic for the Philippines to place continued expectations on the United States to deter the Chinese maritime militia’s activities, as these are below the threshold of armed attacks and the United States is not a claimant party in the South China Sea territorial dispute. While the United States can and does assist with capacity-building, it is ultimately up to the Philippines to enforce its sovereign claims. Overreliance on U.S. power may further contribute to the perceived inequality (from Manila’s perspective) and liability (from the view of some in the United States) of the alliance, as well as provide openings for criticism by Chinese counter-narratives.

From “Defending” to “Deterring”

Manila should change the narrative from a focus on “how to defend” against China toward a more active strategy of deterring China. This is not mere semantics, but a change of mindset in how the Philippines frames its defense and security policies. The former concedes all initiative to China and puts the Philippines in a position where it may be forced to compromise on its interests. This was demonstrated by Chinese aggression against Philippine vessels attempting to resupply Philippine troops in Second Thomas Shoal in November 2021. Resupply eventually resumed, but with the conditionality of Philippine forces not escorting future supply runs. Short-term relief for the shoal may have been bought at the cost of long-term risk, should Chinese forces again block resupply to the Philippine outpost. Chinese military vessels continue to test Philippine sovereignty over even internal archipelagic waters, with the most recent incident occurring in the Sulu Sea on March 14, 2022.

A more active strategy of deterrence posits that the Philippines can influence Chinese decision-making, if not compelling Beijing to renounce its claims, then at least pushing it to reconsider its gray zone operations and other forms of aggression. The urgency for improving the Philippines’ posture has only increased since the Whitsun Reef incident, as negotiations for a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea have gone nowhere due to the Chinese insistence on excluding other extra-regional powers, particularly the United States, as part of the CoC’s provisions.

In conceptualizing deterrence, Manila must be able to explain how and why planned military capabilities affect the adversary’s decision-making. Developing a theory of victory, particularly for the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea, can be crucial in this task. A “theory of victory” comprises coherent ideas that guide the Philippines in utilizing its defense resources to achieve the desired conditions, whether that is preserving Philippine holdings in the disputed sea, deterring coercive actions against Philippine vessels and citizens in the waters of the West Philippine Sea, or compelling and/or incentivizing Chinese recognition of and compliance to the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration Award.

In crafting a theory of victory, Manila must conduct a thorough appraisal of the likely adversary, accounting for their unique strategic culture, grand project, and exercise of military and non-military coercion. The theory must also include considerations of the Philippines’ allies, including their limitations and situations where they may not be able to extend aid.

A theory of victory gives intellectual foundations to devise Philippine deterrence concepts and objectives, generating more policy options for Manila to respond to current and future aggression. This can support AFP modernization efforts either by reinforcing or re-examining the logic to procure systems such as submarines and ground-based anti-ship cruise missiles. Developing a theory of victory can show that the Philippines is purposeful in preparing for long-term defense of its interests, reducing the impact of defeatist and pro-adversary narratives that aim to sow confusion and doubt in the country’s resolve.

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The Philippines is not lacking in ideas for systems and structures that could contribute to its own understanding of deterrence. Manila must bring these elements together and form a coherent theory of victory that it can call its own. From there, the path to a truly credible defense and deterrence posture can become clear.