Peter Dutton on the South China Sea

Professor Peter Dutton is a Professor of Strategic Studies and Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. Professor Dutton's current research focuses on American and Chinese views of sovereignty and international law of the sea and the strategic implications to the United States and the United States Navy of Chinese international law and policy choices. He was interviewed by Isabella Speciale '17 on Feb. 2, 2016.

Many editorials in regional newspapers, such as Singapore’s Straits Times, are hailing the passing of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement as a “necessary measure to augment the Philippines' position in the South China Sea.” Can you tell us briefly what are the most important provisions of the Agreement?

Regrettably I haven’t seen a copy of it so I don’t know all of the provisions of the agreement, however, it does seem to me to be an important component both of the evolving relationship between the Philippines and the U.S. and of the American rebalance to the Asia Pacific region. That’s the context in which this agreement is important. I know that the agreement does suggest opening increasing numbers of bases to the United States in the Philippines, and that would mean either the positioning of U.S. forces or the rotation of U.S. forces through the Philippines would increase, which would support the American rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.

Substantively, how will this Agreement affect the Philippine’s bargaining position in the South China Sea dispute?

I’m not sure the Philippines bargaining position is significantly changed by this Agreement. Really what affected the Philippines’ bargaining position the most was the litigation, the arbitration, that it has brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in light of the Chinese activities in the South China Sea. The key for any of the claimants is to maximize their leverage, particularly against China as the strongest claimant, and it’s not entirely clear what the United States’ position regarding the islands in the South China Sea would be, so I’m not sure that American forces in the Philippines would change the bargaining position of the Philippines. What really does change the bargaining position though is this litigation process. I think it’s an important component of any negotiation process, that the resort to litigation is available to any of the parties in the dispute. And in this case, the Philippines has created leverage by using international law and international institutions to basically put something on the table that China would rather have off. Any time a country can do that, it increases its leverage or its bargaining position. So, my view is that, since the Philippines effectively put something on the table that China would rather have off, it has increased its bargaining position in relationship to China in regards to the disputes.

China has not reacted favorably to the Agreement and claims that the U.S. military presence in the Philippines will raise tensions. Do you believe that the presence of US military equipment and personnel in the Philippines could raise tensions? Why should China be worried?

Well, ‘worried’ is a pretty strong word. I think what the presence of American military equipment and personnel in the Philippines does is that it demonstrates the American commitment to maintaining an open order in the South China Sea, not one that can be closed off by Chinese power in times of crisis or any other times of Chinese preference. So if the United States were not to deploy naval forces to the South China Sea, then the Chinese power would be more than other regional states, even in combination, could address. And that would change the character of the South China Sea. It’s been clear that the other claimants in South East Asia have had a very difficult time in preventing Chinese encroachments into the Spratly Islands and other parts of the South China Sea. Without the American naval presence and supported by other air power and space and cyber power, the South China Sea could become closed off to military, political, and economic influences from others. What’s important about the American presence there is the capacity to ensure that the South China Sea and South East Asia remains an open regional order.

Do you believe that China’s handling of the dispute in the South China Sea prior to this agreement contributed to the signing of it?

Yes. Let’s be clear, the Philippines has made clear in its arbitration that it believes China has created new islands on the Philippine continental shelf and China has clearly built the capacity to station military power on its new islands. So that’s a fundamental change in the situation rather close to the Philippines’ main islands. I would have to conclude that, yes, Chinese behavior had to have contributed to the signing of this agreement because Chinese bases now are essentially next door to the Philippines. And the Philippines has to respond with its defense partner to that change.



Do you believe that if the Chinese had stayed somewhat farther away from the Philippines and if the South China Sea had remained more of a broad regional dispute that the U.S. would have been less inclined to make this agreement with the Philippines specifically? Maybe with another partner instead?

If the circumstances were different, the Philippines would be less inclined to have an American presence there. I think the history demonstrates it’s primarily the Philippines that have been reluctant to have American military presence there, until something very substantial changed in the defense posture that the Philippines things that they need to respond to. So, I think it’s not so much an American change as a Philippine change.

How could China retaliate against the Philippines for finalizing the EDCA?

I’m not sure it’s in China’s interest to retaliate. Not directly at least. It’s more likely that the Chinese will find other ways to deal with this changed circumstance. If you mean military retaliation, I don’t think that’s what the Chinese will have in mind. They don’t have any interest in any kind of conflict. But there are other political and economic actions that the Chinese have been quite willing to take. For instance, the Chinese attempted to isolate the Philippines politically, and I suspect the Chinese may have imposed some economic consequences when the Philippines brought the arbitration because the Chinese have used economic consequences in other circumstances as well. Both politically and economically you might see some consequences to the Philippines, but probably not that strong, and probably most in the form of political retaliation, meaning attempting to isolate the Philippines. But second would be economic, and I don't expect a lot of military retaliation.

Disapproval of this new agreement extends to the Filipino people as well, as demonstrated by the recent protests in Manila. Do you believe that local disapproval could ultimately undermine the strength of the agreement?

The Philippines is a vibrant democracy, and there are always people who are on one side or the other of any policy issue. Rather than seeing this as undermining the agreement, I would see those who see the agreement in a negative light as having a voice in the democratic process that hopefully will shape the agreement. So it’s a healthy thing to have expressions of concern and disapproval because it airs them out and allows them to be addressed. So I don’t see this as being a bad thing.

Do you believe the Chinese could take advantage of this disagreement within the Philippines? Could they play to the difficulties that the Philippines government had in passing the agreement?

Sure. The Chinese always have the power to make statements in support of one constituency or another, or that resonate with one constituency or another. So in that sense, yes, the Chinese could have an impact. But, again this is all part of a vibrant democracy working through policy questions and in the end it strengthens any decision making process.

How committed do you think the US military will remain to keeping these bases fully staffed and operational? Do you see the US military truly maintaining an influential presence in the region or is this more of an opportunity to flex power briefly?

This is not really a military decision, this is a political decision. The military will remain committed to whatever the political leadership of the country decides. This is all about the leadership of the United States, both the executive branch and congress working through questions of policy. And then the implementation of that policy is by the military. That’s it. So this is really a question of politics. And, just the same as in the Philippines, the U.S. has a vibrant democratic system, and so there will be various approaches to how this agreement should be implemented from the United States side as well. But my sense is that there’s strong bipartisan support for it. In the end, America has demonstrated that it has an enduring interest in peace and stability in Asia in order to ensure that our Pacific interests are protected, including our Pacific coastline. I think the United States will remain committed to peace and stability in East Asia for the long run.


Given the United States' increasingly good relations with other Asian nations, including Vietnam most recently, do you believe that this agreement for the US to rotate in and out of agreed upon bases in the Philippines is the first step in a larger plan regionally? What are the odds that Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea, may host U.S. naval and air equipment and personnel?

I’d be really surprised if that occurred. What we’re really seeing with the evolution of the American presence in the Philippines is more of a reversion to natural partners. Obviously the U.S.-Japan relationship has been strengthened, the U.S-Australia relationship has been strengthened, and now the U.S.-Philippines relationship will be strengthened. And I would say these are natural partners. And actually the U.S.-Singapore relationship has been strengthened as well. So there are natural partners that tend to be maritime rather than continental – Vietnam is a continental state. Although our relations with Vietnam will develop into more friendly relations, I’ll be very surprised if the United States positions forces there.

Could you speak a little more about a potentially increased presence in Japan as well?

The presence in Japan is quite strong. I don’t think there needs to be too much change in that regard. You may see change in the American presence in Guam, but I’m not even positive of that. Obviously a year from now there will be a complete review of defense posture and defense policy when we have a new administration here. We might have this conversation a year from now and have different ideas. But for the United States posture in East Asia does not need to change that much in any particular location.

Although the agreement is pitched as one that is more aid-based and humanitarian in nature, it has been interpreted as transparently antagonistic towards the Chinese. However, because of escalating tensions in the South China Sea, how likely is it that the Agreement with the Philippines could potentially drag the U.S. militarily into a conflict with China?

I don't think the United States is any more inclined to be dragged into a conflict with China. And I don’t think the Philippines are either. So I’m not particularly worried about that. The components of the agreement that are about American support for strengthening the Philippines are very important components, and that that’s where the focus will remain, while at the same time the United States will continue to reaffirm its commitment to the defense of the Philippines. What that means for the islands in the South China Sea is a different question, and I have no idea whether that policy will shift or not over time. So far, there’s no clear indication in any materials or articles I’ve read in public that have anything to do with the United States defending anybody’s positions on those islands.

So in the same way that you could potentially foresee retaliation from China in the form of economic of political actions against the Philippines, do you think that that’s a possibility against the United States for having bases in the Philippines?

I’d be very surprised. If there were that kind of thing I think that the Chinese would be on the wrong end of that issue because it would demonstrate that the Chinese are trying to undermine core national interests of the United States and the Philippines, and that’s just not acceptable.

Recent news has supplied little coverage of this agreement; why do you believe there is so little coverage of the EDCA given its very serious implications for the U.S. and for East Asia?

I will be anxious to see what comes out in the news over time. Perhaps the United States is trying to build up its relationships in the region without having some sort of message that could be destabilizing. So perhaps that explains why there hasn’t been so much news coverage, because the government has chosen not to emphasize it.

Document: Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines and the United States

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