Elements of strategic culture like geography, history and politics influence the formation of state policies, including the significance given to disputed territorial and maritime spaces. Alastair Iain Johnston in his 1995 article entitled “Thinking about Strategic Culture” (published in the journal, International Security) defined strategic culture as: “an ideational milieu which limits behavioral choices.” The Harvard International Relations Professor also said that it “is assimilated with the nation’s or strategic community’s identity and features which finally mold the state’s behavior. Strategic culture is that set of shared beliefs, assumptions, and modes of behavior, derived from common experiences and accepted narratives (both oral and written), that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups, and which determine appropriate ends and means for achieving security objectives.”A general appreciation of Chinese and Philippine strategic culture will help unravel some potential rationale behind the importance attached by the two states to the contested features and waters in the South China Sea (SCS).
As an archipelago and maritime nation, the sea has always been important for the Philippines, and renewed importance assigned to it in recent years is a welcome development. Unfortunately, a growing number of poaching and illegal fishing incidents (which amounts to considerable economic losses), degradation of the marine environment, and rising maritime ambitions from its neighbors has to happen before the country can get back to its senses. The unity of the islands and the seas is integral to the country’s identity, survival and future development; maritime defense and security is thus deemed crucial. The Philippines is actively pushing for international acceptance of the concept of archipelagic state in a series of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea conferences, becoming one of the five sovereign archipelagic nations along with Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Bahamas.
The Philippines has a deep connection with the sea. In fact, for a long time, the country was known as the “Pearl of the Orient Seas.” The country’s earliest human remains (“Tabon” Man) were found in caves in Palawan not far from the sea. Key pre-colonial power centers are largely situated in coastal or delta areas, like Sulu, Butuan and Manila. Because of its geographic nature, the sea was the main channel for inter-island connectivity. Livelihood and the economy was also largely tied to the sea and this is still evident to this day. Filipinos built the mighty trans-ocean galleons that connected the Far East with the New World and Europe for 250 years. Since the 1980s, the country is also a primary provider of sailors for global shipping and logistics. Finally, the Philippines is also a major world exporter of fisheries products.
This can help contextualize the relevance assigned to the sea, including the West Philippine Sea (WPS), the body of sea to the west of Luzon and Palawan which includes the waters around and adjacent to Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) and the Kalayaan Island Group (Spartlys). As part of the country’s territory, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf, the site of the country’s primary oil and gas resources, a key strategic waterway, and the forefront of maritime defense and national security, securing WPS had become a top national priority agenda necessitating the employment of all means necessary. This includes homegrown defense capability buildup and/or entering into security alliances with other countries. Manila, Batangas, Cavite and Subic are among the Philippines’ bustling ports in its western seaboard. A major oil depot is also situated in Bataan and other important commercial ports and fish ports line up along western Luzon, notably in the provinces of Zambales, Pangasinan and La Union. In addition, in Philippine history, foreign invaders came by sea, hence incursions in the country’s maritime domain are considered as serious external security threats that must be addressed.
For China, a traditional continental power, control over its nearby seas was largely seen as essential for its security and prestige, and less for its economic value, although China’s economic rise and its growing reliance on maritime trade and commerce is changing this equation. While many of the earliest historical capitals of the Middle Kingdom are located along key rivers, notably Huang He, they are all farther inland. Furthermore, in the past, China’s security focus is largely land-based and particularly directed towards the north and west as evidenced by the construction of the Great Wall to prevent the incursions of barbarians, as well as the establishment of defenses to thwart a possible Soviet invasion during the Cold War. Over time, its security focus had migrated south to its coastal areas, which had become the major drivers of its economic development. As a result, maritime security gained greater attention and government spending. The country’s most affluent and developed provinces and cities on the coast: Shanghai, Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau—the last three of which face the SCS. The island province of Hainan is also being developed as a tourism hub and also hosts a key naval base.
While early Chinese navigators and traders had plied the SCS, attention given to SCS based on a resource lens (particularly with respect to offshore oil and gas) is more of a product of recent economic opportunism more than being an enduring historical centerpiece. However, considering China’s continued economic rise buoyed by seaborne trade and commerce, growing emphasis on the importance of maritime areas will assume greater limelight as the need to protect vital sea lanes demands. Ensuring that the SCS will not fall in the hands of an external power has long motivated Chinese actions in the disputed Sea. To this end, China may take a tough position over SCS claimants, which it deems susceptible to being used by its rivals or enemies to contain or check China’s rise. Foreign powers, which subjugated China, also came by sea, so the desire to deny this passage to invaders is historically ingrained.
Nonetheless, despite the obvious clashes in the SCS positions of the two countries, anchored on the differences in their respective strategic cultures, avenues for collaboration remain open. While the SCS is presently known as a sea of divide, it has long been a sea that forged trade, connections, and people-to-people exchanges not only between the Philippines and China, but also between and among other peoples and countries in the region. And as vast and deep as the SCS is, such openings for cooperation and understanding remain open so long as there is a proper appreciation of the value of their respective strategic cultures and the need to search for confluences that can bridge differences and establish common grounds.