The Strategic Dilemma of Philippine Disarmament Diplomacy
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The Strategic Dilemma of Philippine Disarmament Diplomacy


APLN associate fellow Karla Mae G. Pabeliña published a new commentary at the FSI Philippines.

How will the Philippines, with its unequivocal rejection of nuclear weapons, respond to these developments? In the event of an armed attack, will the Philippines refuse assistance from the United States if the latter threatens to use, or consider using nuclear weapons to effectively deter Chinese aggression and secure victory in an event of confrontation? Will the Philippines restrict access and port, if not completely deny, the movement of key US assets such as B-21 bombers that have both conventional and nuclear missions, or US Navy surface ships and submarines, especially if it pushes for the reintroduction of SLCM-N?

Apart from the restrictions of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, the Philippines is legally bound under the TPNW to not induce and encourage the United States to defend it or deter aggression from another state using nuclear weapons. The Philippines thus places restrictions not just on itself but on the United States in what options are permissible to respond to an armed attack. While ostensibly to ensure nuclear weapons are never again used given its humanitarian consequences, it may also have the effect of ensuring that China need not fear a forceful US response to attacks and provocations against the Philippines, a possibility given its current pressure campaign.

Given the above restrictions, should the Philippines then reassess or leave the TPNW? Such an option is certainly possible if the top leadership of the country decides on it, as with President Duterte’s decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute. However there will be reputational costs for the Philippines, possibly in terms of its relations with TPNW state parties and the NAM, should the country shift towards becoming a nuclear umbrella state or be involved in nuclear-sharing arrangements.

Entering into a “secret” agreement with the United States for nuclear extended deterrence, to sidestep the above prior commitments, is also problematic, both in terms of reputational and political costs should the agreement be exposed, and in terms of actual strategic utility. Deterrence only works if the target knows about it and is sure that retaliation will come; keeping it secret defeats the purpose.

What then must the Philippines do, given these considerations? An obvious choice would be for the Philippines to fast-track investments on its own military capacity to reduce reliance on United States security guarantees. The Philippines should also redouble its efforts not just to facilitate the discussion of nuclear risks but also to have a more definitive role in bridging the discourse of nuclear weapons and disarmament in this era of heightened insecurity. Such efforts necessarily require the Philippines to properly exercise “middlepowermanship”. Middle power literature recommends that such diplomacy should stress conflict-resolution, advancing dialogue, and internationalism.

None of the above are easy options. The Philippines’ problems with its military modernization are well known. There is also the question of whether currently planned defense modernization programs are sufficient to deter a still-growing Chinese military force without outside support. Facilitating discourse is no less difficult; the failure of the last consecutive NPT Review Conferences to agree on an outcome document is just a manifestation of the increasing strategic mistrust among state-parties, which lowers the chance for earnest, good-faith discussion. Any Philippine effort to facilitate discourse must also contend with the dangers of disinformation such as that now being levied against it by China as regards the claims of “secret agreements”, as well as influence operations to sway other states to China’s side.

But these are the hard choices that the Philippines faces and must grapple with sooner rather than later. President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., following the reported incidents of China’s aggressive and dangerous tactics in the West Philippine Sea, stressed that, “Filipinos will not yield.”

With the international order in flux, the Philippines is in a critical juncture. Further reevaluation of where our national interests lie is critical to having a clearer understanding of our motivations and preferences. To shy away from doing introspection and carefully examining this strategic dilemma would undermine our defense and foreign policy planning, and efforts to have a tangible impact on the world stage.

The full article can be accessed on the FSI Philippines website here.

Image: iStock

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