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Short-Term Risk Assessment: Philippines

Short-Term Risk Assessment: Philippines

Scenario One: Official Philippine United Nations complaint against China

The Philippines has already lodged complaints against China at the UN regarding the two countries territorial disputes. Manila seeks redress and mediation on the issue of South-China Sea disputes via UN organs, specifically the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Current trends indicate a high likelihood that the Philippines will again complain to the UN, citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both China and the Philippines are party to.

Prior efforts by Manila at the international level have been ignored or brushed aside by China, which argues that the matter is strictly bilateral in nature and is to be rectified between Beijing and Manila sans international intervention. While lodging another complaint at the UN will have no drastic effect on the region or relations, the action will of course annoy China. The Philippines may be able to use such a complaint as a rallying point for other ASEAN countries (almost all of whom are also party to UNCLOS) vis-à-vis territorial disputes with Beijing. The Chinese response to another complaint may be to impose trade restrictions or duties on various Filipino products in order to put pressure on Aquino's government.

Scenario Two: China-Philippine Naval Clash in the Scarborough Shoal

There is exists a moderate probability that there will be a renewed clash in the West-Philippine Sea between the Philippines and China over control of Scarborough Shoal inlets. A previous standoff in 2012 saw Philippine and Chinese vessels fight over the detainment of Chinese fishing vessels. The standoff eventually saw Manila's forces back down, with Beijing maintaining de facto control over the area. The Philippine is nursing a keen sense of resentment over the issue, while China has seen its occupation as a success which may prompt it to make further encroachments.

Revanchist notions may fuel Manila's actions in escalating the issue. The Philippines is increasing its naval and aerial assets, purchasing ships and surveillance equipment from the U.S. Similarly, China has sent its aircraft carrier to the region as part of exercises, as well as increased the presence of patrols and troops in the disputed region. President Aquino has made repeated calls for efforts to maintain the countries integrity and vowed to defend Filipino interests and claims in the region, a move which has significant domestic support. Whereas the area comprises only 120 square kilometers of land, the surrounding area comprises 495,000 square kilometers of Manila's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – fully 38% of the Philippine's total EEZ coverage.

A renewed clash would further increase tensions, and there exists a rather low probability that this could lead to an exchange of fire between the two countries, although deadly force has as of yet not been employed in the dispute. ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) China trade would be adversely affected, as other members become increasingly anti-Chinese due to their own territorial disputes with Beijing. Entanglement with China may very well see an increased U.S. presence in the Philippines, perhaps with U.S. Navy ships engaging in joint exercises with the Philippines in and around the Scarborough Shoal. 

Scenario Three: Renewed Incursion of Sulu Sultanate Supporters into Malaysia

Last year's incursion of Sulu Sultanate supporters into the the Malaysian controlled region of Sabah has increased the profile of the Karim royal family and their struggle to regain control over the region. Filipinos are increasingly aware of the issue, and the cause may be able to draw some support from the increased feelings on territorial claims given the prominence of the Scarborough dispute in the public mind.

Whereas it is unlikely that an operation of the scale of the 2013 Lahad Datu incursion may occur, there is a moderate probability of supporters of the cause conducting one or more small scale actions. Potential acts may include erecting Sulu flags on Malay territory, propaganda dissemination among the population of Sabah or even hit and run attacks on Malay governmental assets. Repercussions from such acts would include a deterioration in Philippine-Malaysia ties, which in turn may weaken ASEAN resolve and unity on issue of trade liberalization and with regards to China.

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