The two superpowers would seek to control the Philippines because of its strategic location between the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean
The retired Philippine general’s remarks reflect growing concerns about China’s encroachment, but he said he was against deploying maritime militia
to seize control of some of its waterways if a war breaks out between Beijing and Washington, according to former Philippine armed forces chief Emmanuel Bautista.
The archipelago’s strategic location with routes linking the
and Pacific Ocean make it a “key terrain”, the retired general told an online forum last week.
He identified these routes as the Bashi Channel next to the Batanes and Babuyan islands near Taiwan, and the straits of Mindoro, Cebu, Balabac, San Bernardino and Surigao within the Philippine Islands.
“If you want to influence the South China Sea, you need to control these chokepoints,” he said.
Bautista served in the military for over 30 years, and was chief of staff of the armed forces from 2013-2014. He is also a former executive director of the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea, which was created in 2016 by the previous administration to coordinate the efforts of all government agencies in promoting the country’s interests in the maritime zone.
Even though China has said it would not start a war amid
, Bautista said Beijing was getting more aggressive in the disputed sea and at its border with India, where a military stand-off has continued since June.
China has overlapping claims to the South China Sea with four Southeast Asian states, including the Philippines. It also has a long-standing dispute with Japan over the
, and has in recent weeks taken a more assertive military posture towards Taiwan following a visit by a top Trump administration official to Taipei and US arms sales to the self-ruled island.
“Territorial disputes in the Indo-Pacific are flashpoints that can spark a confrontation between the US and China,” Bautista told the forum hosted by the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea, an international group that promotes Philippine sovereignty over the sea.
“Assuming [things] get out of hand and result in a shooting war … China will seize the Philippines.”
The retired general said that in a war between the superpowers, both the US and China would seek to control the country. The US has a defence treaty with the Philippines that commits both signatories to come to each other’s assistance if either is attacked.
“China’s militarisation, the construction of island bases, now pose a direct threat. From these bases, China can launch missiles and fighter aircraft towards our main archipelago within minutes,” he said.
Bautista’s remarks reflect the growing concern among Philippine military officials about China’s increasing encroachment on the country’s territory. Philippine Navy chief Vice-Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo recently revealed a proposal to arm Filipino fishermen and deploy them as “maritime militia” to counter China’s own seaborne militia.
But Bautista said he would rather encourage fishermen “to go out and fish and do their thing in our waters” under the support of the Philippine Coast Guard.
Another forum participant, retired US Navy captain Carl Schuster, warned against deploying maritime militia.
“Democratic societies typically do not have the tight control over their paramilitary forces that you find with a totalitarian regime where there’s a political leadership involved in the training,” said Schuster, former director of operations of the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Centre in Honolulu and current professor in diplomacy and military science at Hawaii Pacific University.
He said the Chinese coastguard is never far away from its seaborne militia. “So anytime your militia comes in contact with theirs, there is a chance of an incident … and then you have a confrontation that’s gone beyond what you’re comfortable dealing with.”
Asked about the invasion scenario Bautista envisioned, defence analyst Collin Koh told
he agreed that if a clash broke out, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have to seize control of key waterways, especially the Bashi Channel.
“If US forces are present in the Philippines at that point of time, it would also mean they’ll likely be targeted for stand-off strikes, or be isolated and neutralised so they can’t take part in the conflict.”
He predicted that “short of outright invasion of Philippine mainland territory at least in order to limit the political fallout, I’ll expect at least the first instance of the PLA seeking to seize control of the strategic waterways around the Philippine archipelago as a necessity to wage military operations against the Americans”.
Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that when seen on a map, the Philippines is part of the “First Island Chain”, which includes Japan and Taiwan.
“The FIC is basically where current US military dispositions are mainly concentrated in, and also where numerous US allies form the natural bulwark against China.”
But even should it attack, China does not necessarily have to invade the entire country or even occupy major parts of it, he said. “The term ‘invasion’ has to be seen in more nuanced terms. Does it mean occupying certain strategic points that may further wartime objectives?”
Koh said there are different modes of “invasion” that China could use, including deploying only air and naval forces to seize control of the strategic waterways without occupying key terrestrial features; expelling Philippine forces close to or in the Scarborough Shoal and then militarisation efforts on the shoal; and even “sabotage” within Philippine territory against American military targets.
“This last scenario is in fact possibly alluded to in the recent debate in the Philippines about China’s ‘soft invasion’ by numerous Chinese nationals who reside in the country.”
In the forum, Bautista warned about Chinese “grey zone” activities – efforts even before a potential conflict to control strategic parts of the archipelago.
“There are already activities being undertaken by China to access the Philippines in terms of procuring or constructing airports and seaports,” the retired general said. “There was an effort to acquire not just Fuga Island, which is one of the chokepoints, but even the Sangley airport construction [at the mouth of Manila Bay].”
Analyst Koh pointed out the Chinese military currently has a foothold close to the Philippines, in Mischief Reef.
“China already has de facto control over Scarborough Shoal which is close to the strategic Subic Bay, and in times of conflict or under other politically expeditious conditions this feature might be fully occupied like Mischief Reef is now,” he said.
“A PLA foothold on the shoal would allow easy staging of military ops, especially ASW [anti-submarine warfare], against US submarines coming in from Guam, while facilitating the movement of PLA Navy assets including submarines through the strait and into the Philippine Sea where the PLA would expect to slug it out against the US military.”
Bautista said the challenge for the Philippines is to assert its rights while avoiding conflict. “We cannot set aside sovereignty and sovereign acts just because we want to avoid conflict,” he stressed.
President Rodrigo Duterte has previously warned that asserting sovereign rights would automatically lead to war. He set aside a 2016 ruling in The Hague which essentially invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea in favour of pursuing closer economic ties with Beijing.
In recent months though, following complaints by claimant states Malaysia and Vietnam, Manila has maintained that it will counter any challenge to its territorial sovereignty. Earlier this week, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr said the Philippines was building up its own fleet that included fishing boats to patrol the South China Sea, taking a leaf out of China’s book to swarm the area in a bid to assert control.
But in a senate finance hearing on October 12, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine military was only about a quarter of the way to attaining a minimum credible defence capability, noting that even if the navy had ships, they were not properly armed yet.