Lorenzana: PH in line of fire if US-China conflict in South China Sea escalates into war
MANILA, Philippines—The prospect of the United States and China stumbling into full-blown conflict in the South China Sea is growing and the Philippines will get dragged into it whether it likes it or not, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
At a forum hosted by the Stratbase ADR Institute on Wednesday (Nov. 25), the Philippine defense chief said the rivalry of the two superpowers in the South China Sea is consuming the interest and time of security agencies in the region.
“This then is the crux of the security challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, the looming confrontation of the US and its allies and China for the South China Sea,” Lorenzana said.
While the US and China assert that their actions are defensive in nature, Lorenzana said “the fear of miscalculation is ever present like the near collision of two frigates belonging to the US and China two years ago.”
The navies of US and China nearly collided in late 2018 after a Chinese destroyer came dangerously close to an American warship conducting a “freedom of navigation” patrol in the South China Sea.
China has further upped the ante with its recent decision to arm its coast guard and militia vessels patrolling the South China Sea, he said.
Lorenzana continued: “If ever a shooting war happens, Philippines which is right smack in the middle of the conflict will be involved whether she likes it or not.”
China continued to aggressively enforce its mythical nine-dash line claim over the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea in the middle of a pandemic that started in a Chinese province.
China claims ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, which refers to waters that form part of Philippine territory.
Aside from the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have claims in the South China Sea, which is crisscrossed by vital sea-lanes through which billions of dollars in global commerce passes every year and where islets, reefs, and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.
The Philippines has been cautious in its dealings with the US and China in relation to the South China Sea dispute. The two superpowers continued to woo the Philippines on their side, highlighting the Philippines’ “crucial role” in the region.
“Everyone knows what President Duterte did to move the country towards China. Some say it’s good for the country, some say it is bad,” Lorenzana went on.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been criticized for setting aside the landmark 2016 arbitral ruling against Beijing’s mythical nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea. China refused to recognize the ruling.
He avoided directly confronting Beijing over the maritime dispute in exchange for investments and loans which critics said have yet to be realized.
The South China Sea dispute, Lorenzana said, has become a major concern of other nations and it was one of the topics that dominated his conversations with his counterparts this year, apart from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the Philippine defense secretary said he received personal calls and visits from his counterparts from Japan, China, Australia, France and US.
“The two topics that dominated were first, the pandemic and second the South China Sea, with the South China Sea taking a large share of time. What does this tell us? That the South China sea is important in nations,” he said.
“That the tension in the South China sea will continue to rise as China will continue to accuse the US and other nations of provocation and other destabilization in the region,” he went on.
“The West is trying to contain the lies of China, China has consistently stated that the South China seas is their core interest,” he also said.
The Philippines is presented with many recommendations on how to deal with the situation, Lorenzana said.
Asean, he said, “could act as one” to “exert considerable influence in the issues of the South China Sea.”
“But this is not possible at the moment due to the conflicting interest. The 10 Asean nations could not even agree on a common communique several years ago,” Lorenzana said.
The issue was made more complicated by China’s preference to deal individually with Asean nations instead of talking with them as a group, he said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.