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Bringing Vietnamese Counterinsurgency to the Philippines and South China Sea (Part I)

Apr 05, 2024

On April 11, President Biden will host a trilateral summit in Washington, D.C., notably at a time of surging tension in the South China Sea. In the meeting, Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will likely formalize the broadening of trilateral cooperation.

From Washington’s perspective, the collaboration is designed to weaken China prior to a potential Taiwan crisis. Though the Philippines seems positioned to bear most risks and losses, it is not entirely clear how it will benefit from the new trajectory.

Without policy recalibration, Manila seems to be stumbling into a major geopolitical minefield, as the Filipinos’ trust in the domestic policies of their political leaders is dwindling. 

Whatever happened to diplomacy? 

On March 28, President Marcos Jr. pledged to mount a "proportionate, deliberate and reasonable" response to the "unabating, and illegal, coercive, aggressive and dangerous attacks" by the China Coast Guard and the Chinese Maritime Militia in the South China Sea (SCS). Reportedly, Marcos would rescind whatever SCS agreement China may have reached with former president Duterte.

That same day, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian stated that the Philippines' harassment and provocations are the direct cause of the SCS escalation. Counting on the support of external forces, the Philippines has infringed upon China's sovereignty and violated international law and the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS, Wu said. Reportedly, the Philippine government has ignored several concept papers China submitted almost a year ago that proposed ways to normalize the situation in the disputed areas of the SCS.

What’s behind this progressive escalation? The opposing policy stances on the SCS issues by Manila and Beijing have not changed. But the way these stances are promoted overtly (and covertly) have.

In the Duterte era, both sides agreed to disagree on the divisive SCS issues, which became subject of pragmatic long-term negotiations, in anticipation of the ASEAN-China code of conduct on the SCS. Diplomacy ensured focus on economic development, which is very much in the interest of all countries in the region.

During the electoral campaign, Marcos pledged he would build on Duterte’s legacy. After the election, those vows turned upside down. In the SCS, the past cooperative approach was replaced with the tactic of “assertive transparency,” which Manila has recently framed as “measured transparency;” that is, “publicizing the aggressive aggressions of China.” In Washington, it is portrayed as Manila's response to counter China. Yet, the architects of the policy seem to be linked with the U.S. Department of Defense. Instead of just information war, it involves counterinsurgency operations.    

Bringing Vietnam to the Philippines                

Working in the U.S. Naval College in 2016, a young policy wonk Hunter Stires developed the strategic concept of “maritime insurgency/counterinsurgency” (Maritime COIN). His goal was to reframe the Chinese challenge in the SCS and reorient U.S. strategy to defeat it.

In a 2019 essay, “The South China Sea Needs a ‘COIN’ Toss," Stires argued that the past U.S. SCS approach to countering China had failed. The U.S. Navy’s “freedom of navigation" operations failed to neutralize what he termed, using ominous jargon, China’s “cancerous expansion.”  What the U.S. needed, he argued, was “a maritime counterinsurgency campaign to find opportunities for economies of force.” In brief, the Navy needed more bang for its buck, while diversifying its risks to the host country.

Stires compared Beijing’s efforts in the SCS with the Viet Cong’s activities against rural civilian populations in South Vietnam arguing that "large numbers of small U.S. units brigaded with allied forces can produce disproportionate outcomes.” Offering an alternative to big and broad military campaigns, the Combined Action Program (CAP) platoons would patrol in villages and hamlets full-time to degrade the insurgents’ capabilities.

The trick was to bring them to the Philippines and the SCS. 

Philippine Insurrection against Philippines  

The bigger lesson – the massive economic and human, particularly civilian, losses that the U.S. caused, with the CAP and other doctrines, and its defeat in Vietnam – is simply ignored in the essay.

At the end of the Vietnam War, the number of total deaths amounted to almost 1.4 million people, of which almost 80 percent were Vietnamese combatants and civilians. Most of the Vietnamese economy and infrastructure was devastated. The U.S. Air Force also deployed toxic herbicides, including Agent Orange, destroying much of the once-lush territory in the course of the ecocide.

The CAP experiences originated at least partially on Marine “pacification programs” (read: violent subjugation) in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere during the Banana Wars in the late 19th and early 20th century. More recent operations include those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are also links to other pacification programs, such as what the U.S. historians call the “Philippine Insurrection” or Philippine-American War (1899-1903) when the U.S. conquered the country eventually engaging in massacres during the Moro Rebellion (1899-1913) (Figure 1). Hence, too, the scorched earth campaigns and forcible relocations of civilians to concentration camps in which thousands perished, as America eventually replaced Spain as the colonial power. On the Philippine side, the war led to at least 200,000 civilian deaths, although some estimates put civilian deaths up to a million.  

Figure 1     The 1906 Moro massacre


In the Bud Dajo massacre, U.S. military bombed the stronghold killing over 600 men, women and children. In one of the military operations conducted against the Moros, US soldiers pose for the camera in the aftermath of the massacre. (Source: Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today, Stires serves as maritime strategist to the Secretary of the Navy. To him, the Philippines and the SCS is South Vietnam's maritime reincarnation. Ironically, the maritime counterinsurgency idea rests in part on the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine deployed in the lethal conquest of the Philippines. It’s an odd déjà vu. 

U.S. Navy, Big Defense, and think-tanks       

But tactical doctrines are one thing, actionable military campaigns are another. What ensued was the controversial Project Myoushu, a derivative of the U.S Naval Institute’s Maritime Counterinsurgency (COIN) Project. Tailored to counter China in the SCS, Myoushu is one of the core projects of SeaLight, an initiative by Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation (GKC).

The GKC was created in fall 2021, in parallel with Philippine presidential rivalry. It was sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), which reports directly to the Secretary of the Navy.

The GKC's resources originate from U.S. government agencies, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI). The CSIS is a major U.S. think-tank, funded by government agencies, the Pentagon, the Big Defense, banking behemoths and energy giants. AMTI is an arm of the CSIS; a sort of high-tech intelligence assembler supporting U.S. interests in maritime Asia. In the Philippines, it has cooperated with Stratbase ADR Institute, the late foreign minister Alberto del Rosario's think-tank, which is linked with BowerGroup Asia, headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, west of Washington, D.C.

Located at Stanford in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, the GKC seeks to provide a new vision of naval power in the coming decades, when “the U.S. will be engaged in great power competition with our strategic rivals, and there’s no guarantee we’ll come out ahead,” says Joe Felter, one of its founders. An ex-Special Forces officer, Felter has served as U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary for South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. His combat deployments include Iraq and Afghanistan, where he reported to Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus.

In brief, the doctrine of assertive transparency is a part of a broader maritime counterinsurgency campaign, seeking to contribute to China’s containment in the South China Sea (Figure 2). And it has been developed and refined by high-level senior officers and major think-tanks in the U.S. Defense Department. 

Figure 2         Behind the “assertive transparency” doctrine


The resort to the “assertive transparency” doctrine has been accompanied by the dramatic plummeting of the approval ratings of President Marcos and other government leaders. The decline is due to growing Filipino concerns regarding issues like inflation, corruption and perceived weak leadership. In such circumstances, SCS tensions are a convenient distraction away from Filipino bread-and-butter issues – unless and until those tensions finally explode. 

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