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Manila should restrain or respond to China as tensions escalate

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The collision incident involving two Chinese vessels ramming a Philippine coast guard ship near the Second Thomas Shoal raises critical questions about the Philippines’ approach to dealing with China.

It presents a policy dilemma where the Philippines has to decide whether to prioritize diplomacy or take alternative measures to counter Chinese aggression.

Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr , disillusioned by Beijing’s diplomatic facade, has expressed support for multilateral joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea as a means to modify Chinese behavior.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr , the country’s leader, has recently adopted an assertive national security policy, with external defense taking top priority.

In light of China’s concerning maneuvers at sea, the Philippines finds itself at a crossroads, deliberating whether to exercise restraint or respond with stronger measures.

The Philippine Coast Guard has been diligently documenting these actions, indicating Beijing’s growing impatience in asserting control over its disputed 10-Dash Line territories.

Given this context, the Philippines is contemplating joint patrols as a diplomatic tool. We argue that such patrols can help restore balance in the asymmetric military tensions within the South China Sea region and gradually deter China’s aggression.

In fact, China’s continuous escalatory moves inadvertently support the justification for joint patrols. Hence, Manila ought to consider a more flexible approach, as conducting joint patrols presents a superior option for countering China’s gray zone tactics compared to hastily invoking the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

While deterrence may not work in all situations, it can be effective under specific circumstances. Southeast Asian states often face criticism for their perceived lack of substantial action.

However, collective deterrence goes beyond symbolic gestures of maritime cooperation and encompasses actual military operations.

Embracing freedom of navigation patrols as a norm-building activity enables the development of performative strategic practices and effective responses to international maritime violations.

Undoubtedly, Manila has ample reasons to continue its diplomatic protests against China. However, to prevent fatigue and achieve maximum impact, coupling these protests with joint patrols, if carefully implemented, can level the playing field against China’s hostile actions.

Though this strategy may sound complex, logistics play a critical role in determining strategic opportunities. It is essential to maintain military mobility for sustained joint patrols in a given operational theater.

As highlighted by James Dunnigan, naval logistics should be adaptable, with a multitude of tankers and cargo ships accompanying or tracking the task forces, which themselves become targets at sea.

Currently, the challenge lies in countering China’s overwhelming presence in the West Philippine Sea, with its combined navy, coast guard, and maritime militia vessels strategically positioned across the South China Sea.

By implementing collective deterrence through joint patrols, China might resort to diplomatic maneuvers rather than actual collisions. However, the sustainability of these interoperable efforts relies on political will and commitment to achieve the desired effect.

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