More than any country in the region, the Philippines has sought to protect its territorial integrity through “lawfare” (legal warfare), taking China to the court over maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Perturbed by China’s growing assertiveness across disputed waters, evident in its expanded para-military patrols, massive reclamation activities, and regular military drills in the area, the Philippines has also doubled down on its military spending, hoping to modernize its armed forces.

Like never before, the disputes in the South China Sea have become a key topic in the Philippine national discourse.  According to a Pew survey, up to 93% of Filipinos are worried about the prospects of war in the South China Sea, with a clear majority (58%) viewing China as a national security threat. The Aquino administration has astutely tapped into growing nationalist sentiments at home, portraying Manila’s struggle against its northern neighbor in biblical ‘David vs. Goliath’ terms.

The Filipino president, Benigno Aquino, on at least two occasions, went so far as to liken China to Nazi Germany, repeatedly dismissing diplomatic engagement with China as a form of appeasement. Back in 2013 and 2014, more than 60% of the population supported Aquino’s approach to China, but recent  surveys, however, suggest that a growing portion of Filipinos (46%) are now skeptical about the efficacy of the government’s approach to China. Of particular concern is the inability of the Aquino administration to tangibly defend the Philippines’ claims on the ground, while China has managed to rapidly build a sprawling network of civilian and military bases across the Spratly chain of islands. Not only has the Philippines effectively lost the Scarborough Shoal since 2012, but there is a growing feeling that the government has fallen short of sufficiently fortifying its outposts and defending its position on the ground amid a protracted lawfare with China.

The Trailblazer

The Philippines, specifically under the Marcos dictatorship (1965-1986), was among the first countries to build an airstrip along with advanced military facilities in the South China Sea. Recognizing the Darwinian nature of the territorial struggles among half a dozen nations in the area, Manila shunned legal arbitration in favor of a de facto exercise of sovereignty over disputed features in the Spratly chain of islands.

Confident of its military capabilities, and reassured by robust American military presence on its soil, the Marcos regime managed to exercise control over numerous features in the Spratly chain of islands, including the much-prized Thitu (Pag-Asa) Island, the second largest feature in the area. Thanks to its strategic foresight during Cold War, the Philippines enjoyed enormous tactical advantage relative to other claimant states in the area.

Soon, however, other claimant states began to replicate the Philippine strategy in the area, building their own airstrips and expanding their military presence in the area. Meanwhile, succeeding Filipino administration progressively neglected the imperative to maintain and upgrade fortifications on the ground. Shortly after the departure of American bases (1992), China opportunistically wrested control of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, revealing the vulnerability of Manila’s position in the area.

Still, the Philippines continued to neglect the necessity to strengthen its position on the ground. As former Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez told me, Filipino leaders continuously “ignored the strategic value of a string of rocks and reefs and shoals that are convertible into potent military stations to control the vast sea around.”

Catch up Time

The Philippines’ rusty, dilapidated outpost in the Second Thomas Shoal painfully reveals the lopsided nature of the country’s South China Sea strategy. Since 1999, the Philippines has grounded a World War II relic, the Sierra Madre tank-landing vessel, in order to assert its claim over the disputed reef.

Over the past 16 years, the ragtag outpost has hosted, on a rotational basis, a small contingent of Filipino troops, who have had to withstand hunger, numbing solitude, violent weather conditions, scorching heat, and intensified Chinese harassment.

Since 2013, Chinese Coast Guard vessels, some of them reported to be better-equipped than the Philippines conventional naval forces, have tried to lay siege on Sierra Madre and choke off its supply lines. The Philippines was only able to break a Chinese-led siege when its forces were accompanied by Pentagon’s P-8A surveillance planes. Despite the growing threat posed by China, the Aquino administration still prevaricated on strengthening its position on the ground, instead opting for a legal confrontation.

In late-2014, the Philippine government decided to postpone the refurbishment of its decades-old, emaciated facilities on the Thitu Island, which once stood as the shining example of Manila’s strategic acumen. Top Filipino defense officials tried to justify the astonishing decision by emphasizing the (supposed) importance of maintaining “the moral high ground” amid the Philippines’ ongoing arbitration case against China. Possibly, Manila also calculated that a legal approach is relatively anodyne compared to fortifying its position on the ground, though China has also vociferously opposed the arbitration proceedings.

Yet, maintenance and refurbishment of existing facilities constitutes a resumption of normal activities, which is consistent with international law. It is the artificial alteration of the nature of disputed features, as China has been doing for the past two years that violates international law. In short, the Philippines decided, quite naively, to put its eggs in the legal basket at the expense of the imperative to urgently strengthen its position on the ground.

Meanwhile, other claimant states, from China to Taiwan and Vietnam, rapidly enhanced their position on the ground. Taipei embarked on a $100 million project to upgrade its port facilities on the already well-maintained Itu Aba (Tai Ping to Taiwanese), the biggest feature in the contested area. This would allow Taiwan to accommodate heavy naval frigates and coast guard cutters. Airstrip facilities have also been upgraded to accommodate Hercules C-130 transport planes.

As for China and Vietnam, they engaged in reclamation activities, artificially expanding rocks and atolls under their control in order to more effectively project power. Recognizing the folly of its strategic negligence in the area, the Philippines has finally decided to upgrade its facilities, particularly on the Sierra Madre. But as China gradually builds the skeleton of Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the Philippines will have a lot of catching up to do.

While the government has made halting steps in repairing its facilities on Thitu Island, particularly its cracking airstrip, it has also proceeded with reinforcing the deck and hull of and installing ventilation systems on the rusty Sierra Madre in the Second Thomas Shoal. Nonetheless, Manila seems still hesitant to make any significant overhaul of its outposts due to, officially, its concern over its moral high ground and commitment to “rules-based diplomatic approach.” In all likelihood, Manila’s hesitance is also due to difficulties and risks associated with making major upgrades, as these may provoke China into menacing response.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.