MANILA -- Some say the Philippines is to China as a minnow is to a shark. The Southeast Asian country has minimal military muscle, yet it is locked in a territorial dispute with Beijing over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. To shore up its position, Manila is increasing cooperation with Washington and Tokyo.
On June 23, a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force P-3C patrol plane flew in skies not far from the Spratlys, where China has been conducting massive land reclamation work around reefs.
The aircraft, known for its surveillance and submarine-spotting capabilities, was taking part in the first joint drill between the MSDF and the Philippine Navy. It flew out of the Philippines' western island of Palawan and patrolled a swath of water about 150km away from the disputed islands.
Since U.S. forces left the Philippines in 1992, the country has lacked sufficient funds for defense, partly due to periods of economic stagnation and political turmoil. When China declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in 2013 and there was speculation it might do the same over the South China Sea, it was revealed that the Philippines would be unable to scramble aircraft in an emergency.
It appears this weakness has only emboldened China to push ahead with land reclamation.
With a resurgent economy, the Philippines is gradually modernizing its forces, but the nation's military is still ill-equipped compared with those of its neighbors. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the country spent about $3.2 billion on its military last year, a third of Singapore's outlay and roughly half of Thailand's.
At a summit in Tokyo on June 4, the leaders of Japan and the Philippines discussed their shared concerns over China's reclamation drive, according to sources close to the governments. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his counterpart, President Benigno Aquino, also agreed to start talks that could lead to Japan exporting weapons and other defense equipment to the Philippines. Manila is apparently interested in a wide range of hardware, including ships and planes.
Cooperation would deepen further if the two countries conclude a status of forces agreement. This would allow SDF personnel to be stationed in the Philippine archipelago. Abe and Aquino discussed such a pact at their summit, and the Philippine government intends to proceed with preparations. Aquino on June 5 told reporters that his administration plans to take the necessary diplomatic steps.
A status of forces deal could create a local base for refueling and servicing the P-3C, enabling better surveillance.
The Philippines already has such pacts with the U.S. and Australia, even though its constitution forbids the stationing of foreign forces on its territory. These exceptions were cleared by the nation's upper house.
A new treaty with the U.S., signed last year, stands to once again give American forces broad access to the Philippines.
Closer cooperation with Japan and the U.S. does not necessarily mean the Philippines expects a military clash with China. It is all part of Manila's efforts to get world opinion on its side as it builds a case against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Alleging that China's claim to sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea is unfounded, Manila in 2013 informed Beijing that it would seek arbitration. The law says a party to a dispute can initiate arbitration proceedings after notifying the other side.
The Philippines is paying hefty fees to a major U.S. law firm. In July, oral arguments began at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands. China has rejected the proceedings outright, arguing the tribunal is a one-sided attempt to heap political pressure on it. Disputes, China says, should be negotiated bilaterally.
The court is expected to rule on the case in 2016 at the earliest. In the meantime, recent criticism of Chinese land reclamation by U.S. and other countries' officials suggests Manila's strategy is working.
Despite the progress Manila has made in marshaling international support, the outlook is still a bit hazy.
The prospects for implementing the new U.S. treaty are unclear, as some Philippine politicians and other opponents have challenged it in court.
Not everyone in Japan is thrilled about the idea of sending the SDF to the South China Sea, either. Some worry this could needlessly rile China.
Then there is the upcoming Philippine election. The public has generally supported Aquino's foreign policy, but it is hard to say how his successor will approach diplomacy. Either way, the South China Sea dispute is not something the next president will be able to ignore.