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What the Philippines can learn from the South China Sea and Ukraine crises

Written By | Mar 21, 2014

HONOLULU, March 21, 2014 — The modern world that emerged from the end of the Cold War and the disastrous terrorist attacks of 9/11 has deceived the United States and her traditional allies into assuming that war between states was a thing of the past. As the world sees Russian advances in Eastern Europe and Chinese power plays in the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. partners such as the Philippines should use these watershed events as case studies for developing stronger defense policies.

“The U.S. will never face another peer threat” — a flawed doctrine

After 9/11, countless pseudo-academics at prestigious Western universities and think tanks claimed future military engagements would revolve around counterinsurgency, anti-terrorism and police actions against genocide. In military journals, officers penned articles asking why carriers with flight decks loaded with fighters and dedicated attack aircraft were necessary when amphibious warfare ships would be better suited if an expeditionary commander’s mission was simply dealing with third world nations with no air forces.

During the 2012 presidential elections, President Obama re-affirmed his 2008 campaign promises to restructure the military to address “new” forms of warfare, particularly in the area of special forces, cyberwarfare and drone development. The American people were told in 2012 that the Army supposedly “didn’t know what to do” with things like tanks and wanted more special forces and UAVs.

When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested the U.S. Navy was shrinking and at its weakest ever, Obama sarcastically replied “we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed.” The “new” U.S. military, which operates on the clichéd banner of “leaner, lighter, faster” supposedly is more capable and powerful with its cyber weaponry, littoral combat ships and unmanned aircraft — all scaled for fighting small regional threats and lightly armed terrorists.

One can only imagine the shock that U.S. policymakers had when last year China announced it was declaring wide swaths of the South China Sea as part of its territorial air defense identification zone, a move reminiscent of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi’s infamous “Line of Death” which lasted during the late 1970s and mid-80s.

Instead of the U.S. military facing ill-equipped terrorists or backward Iranian forces that it could harass at will with propeller drones, China forced the Obama Administration to play on classic peer military terms with jet fighter aircraft and naval vessels.

This year, U.S. policymakers and defense planners were again shocked when Russia responded to Ukraine’s revolution by suddenly marching hundreds of thousands of troops and heavy military vehicles into the Crimean peninsula in just a few days. Ukraine, with its token military forces, must have remembered Georgia’s experience in the 2008 South Ossetia War, and what it could not accomplish on the battlefield it sought to do through rhetoric, politics and international sympathy.

The international community may support Ukraine and bemoan the Russian annexation of Crimea, but cry as they might, one thing is clear: Putin is keeping Crimea. The message that is becoming clear in 2014 is that decisive leaders with strong military forces determine the future of their neighbors. The lessons of the Peace of Westphalia may have been forgotten by academics, but its rules of war and statecraft will never die.

The Philippines must take an active role in Asian security

Rotate the globe in your mind a hemisphere over to the Pacific. In the Philippines, a bizarre dichotomy exists in which the archipelago state represents one of the most strategic regions in the Asia-Pacific region yet is lightly defended and woefully vulnerable in comparison to neighboring military forces. In 2009, when I had the chance to meet a senior civilian member of the Philippine government at a diplomatic reception in Hawaii, I mentioned how the PAF had retired its F-5 fighter aircraft and had been left only with modest attack trainers and propeller aircraft to defend its airspace.

“In light of fact that China, Indonesia and others in the region are modernizing their air forces and acquiring stand-off air launched missiles,” I asked, “aren’t you concerned that the lack of any supersonic multirole fighters will put you in a pickle if there are territorial disputes over the oil rich islands in the near future?”

He smiled and answered, “Those are external defense platforms you’re talking about. High tech weapons. My country needs internal defense platforms. Low tech weapons. External defense is not a priority. What we need now are attack aircraft that can fly low and slow. Propeller planes. Things that can get in the weeds and stay on station for long periods of time. We need more cargo planes like the C-130 that can land and take off on short, undeveloped areas. And most of all, we need more troops to fight terrorists.”

In recent months, China has been more aggressive in deploying its military near Philippine waters and airspaces. It’s no accident that the Philippine government today has once more warmed up to U.S. military forces on their soil; without credible “external” security and armed only with “low tech” systems, the Philippines must rely on U.S. babysitting to sustain its territorial sovereignty.

Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and especially India have all recognized the need to parry China’s rise as a hemispheric power. What is lacking is a strong Philippines, and that vulnerability not only makes the U.S. security relationship overwhelmingly one-sided, but leaves the Philippines open to attack in the future.

As a person of Filipino heritage, I completely understand the tenderhearted, open and trusting nature of Filipinos towards their neighbors. Nevertheless, the changing economic, industrial and military dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region make defending the strategic value and territorial sovereignty of the Philippines absolutely necessary for the second and third decades of the 21st century.

The Philippines needs to change its fiscal priorities and invest in military platforms capable of enforcing air and sea sovereignty. A top emphasis in particular should be placed on acquiring airborne early warning and maritime patrol aircraft. This not only ensures the Philippines can avoid being bullied by China in territorial disputes, but also makes for a more competent ally in the U.S.-Philippine security relationship.

As it is, both China and Russia are already routinely testing the air defenses and sovereignty of U.S. allies. In the last months of 2013 alone, the JASDF had to scramble fighters to intercept airspace intrusions by PLAAF aircraft close to 200 times. Russia has also routinely sent strategic bombers to test the airspaces of multiple European allies and even the U.S. military forces in Guam.

Contrary to the “wars of the future will be low tech, tight in cities and dirty” assertions of U.S. academics, longitudinal evidence points to increasing militarization of aerospace and sea. Both China and Russia hope that the United States and her allies shun high tech weapons and fall into the deception of preparing for low intensity conflict. Both China and Russia would love nothing more than for the U.S. and her allies to beef up more “troops” – that is, light infantry and special forces – rather than aircraft, naval vessels and tanks because that is one area that they can easily defeat Western powers through sheer numbers.

Is the Philippines the next place where China will test its swelling power projection capability?  That is a question that neither the Philippines or U.S. planners should wait to answer. The Philippines needs to look at world history and prepare for the future.

Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs standing committees as well as a former minority caucus research analyst at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, he has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. He has two doctorates in theology and ministry, a postgraduate in strategic marketing, a master's in political science and a bachelor's in political science and public administration. Writing on comparative politics, modern culture, fashion and more, Danny is also the author of the new novel "American Kiss" available now from