A maritime security expert has warned the Philippine government about China’s political warfare, which involves coopting key officials of the Department of National Defense (DND), senior officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and other government officials to establish a secure foothold in the Philippines at the expense of the country’s maritime interests.
Retired Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong made the warning in a closed-door forum organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute on Tuesday, where the strategic position of the Philippines in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific was discussed.
“Former President Duterte’s pivot to China did not gain traction because of the pushback from the DND and the Navy. Beijing realized this, which explains why the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is pushing President Marcos Jr. to set up talks with the AFP and to strengthen defense cooperation between the two countries,” Ong said in his study.
“The Chinese embassy fired the operating salvo by hosting an alumni event for AFP officers trained in China. Referencing the Chinese playbook on influence operations, in their mind, the only way they can establish a secure foothold in the country Is by coopting key officials of the DND and senior officers in the AFP,” he added.
Ong’s warning came amid a recently reported incident, where a Chinese Coast Guard vessel drove away a Filipino fishing boat in Ayungin Shoal on January 9, just several days after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s state visit to China.
Ong stressed that a successful cooptation of political elites through influence operations seriously impacts the country’s maritime interests.
“At the national level, Beijing can insinuate itself in decision-making and disrupt the country’s security posture in the WPS. Case in point: to “prevent a war with China,” Duterte did not allow the Navy to conduct patrols in the EEZ, secure vessels surveying the service contract areas off Palawan, and participate in bilateral patrols in the WPS with the US Navy,” Ong said.
To address this, Ong believes the United States or Australia can be “encouraged to take a lead role in discussing the ways to mitigate foreign interference to take a lead role in discussing the ways to mitigate foreign interference in the guise of cooptation of political, business, and military elites, strategic corruption, disinformation, and cyberwarfare, among others”.
The maritime security expert also urged the government to deploy ships in the West Philippine Sea that can conduct patrols unilaterally or in tandem with the United States or other partner-navies.
“The Navy does not possess the numbers or the available mix of capabilities to symmetrically control China’s surface fleet at sea.
The most viable solution is to deploy “surface task groups” made up of the frigates, amphibious, and patrol vessels in its current inventory to contest the Chinese presence in the EEZ. Such a group could conduct patrols unilaterally or in tandem with the US or other partner-navies.
This conveys a message of solidarity among like-minded countries with a stake in a peaceful SCS and contests the legality of China’s excessive territorial claims,” Ong stated in his study.
Ong added that because of the increase in coercive activities around the Ayungin Shoal and even Sandy Cay, there is an immediate need to re-establish some form of sea control in these areas.
“Ironically, while Chinese maritime forces have been converging towards these key features, the navy’s newer ships are being deployed elsewhere. This might be the appropriate time to concentrate these resources in the KIG where their presence could contest, if not eliminate, the tactical advantage enjoyed by China’s maritime forces on the ground.” Ong explained.
“It can be protected by Rizal Class frigates, Del Pilas class patrol ships, or the new Shaldag fast-attack crafts that can be pre-deployed from Ulugan Bay. However the ideal solution is to construct a permanent concrete outpost to replace the BRP Sierra Madre. Ayungin Shoal should not fall into Chinese hands; that would be a political and military debacle,” Ong added.
Meanwhile, geopolitics expert and Stratbase ADR Institute non-resident fellow Richard Heydarian also recommended to the Philippine government to maximize its relations with Australia in his study entitled, “Spoke-to-Spoke Alliance: Australia, ASEAN, the Philippines, and ‘Middle Power’ Diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific”.
“The Philippine-Australia bilateral relationship is both promising yet highly under-tapped… The Philippine-Australia relationship is yet to be optimized. Manila has often prioritized relations with Washington, Tokyo, and more recently, Beijing. But bilateral relations with Manila, a fellow US treaty ally and Southeast Asia’s sole liberal democracy, have a huge room for improvement,” he said.
Heydarian explained because of the Philippines-Australia Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), the two countries have had robust counter-terrorism and conflict-resolution in the past decade.
However, he also said that there is still a need for both the US and Philippines to step up their bilateral cooperation and deepen their contribution to international peace and security.
“Canberra should expand its capacity-building assistance, especially in the realm of infrastructure connectivity and climate change resilience, in Southeast Asia in general, and with the Philippines in particular… Australia should leverage its robust financial sector and considerable development aid to mobilize capital for high-quality public infrastructure investments in Southeast Asia, which is in dire need of upgrading its basic infrastructure and climate-proofing its mega-cities and coastal zones,” he said.
“This can be done in tandem with international financial institutions such as the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB), regional financial hubs such as Singapore, as well as like-minded powers such as Japan, a leading public infrastructure investor in the Indo-Pacific,” Heydarian added.