Locked in a bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea, the Philippines has pressed ahead with a case before the UN Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The move has raised tensions with China, which vehemently opposed any effort by the Philippines to 'internationalise' what Beijing views as essentially a bilateral territorial dispute to be resolved outside the courts. As a result, bilateral communication channels have virtually collapsed, placing Manila and Beijing in a precarious territorial standoff

There are growing fears that China will retaliate against the Philippines' arbitration manoeuvre by considering, among other things, the expansion of maritime patrols across contested waters, the imposition of a siege on Philippine maritime detachments in the Spratly chain of islands, and implementation of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. China also has the option of imposing economic sanctions, including travel bans on Chinese tourists to the Philippines and non-tariff barriers against Philippine exports.

After all, Beijing pursued some of the above options after the mid-2012 naval standoff between the Philippine Navy and Chinese paramilitary vessels over the Scarborough Shoal. And recent weeks have seen Chinese Coast Guard forces restricting the resupply of a small Philippine marine detachment in the Second Thomas Shoal.  

Bereft of any credible minimum deterrence capability, Manila has had little choice but to step up its defence cooperation with Washington. Meanwhile, the deadlock over the negotiation of a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (being negotiated under the auspices ofASEAN) has exacerbated the Philippines' security dilemma, further tilting Manila into Washington's orbit.

US President Barack Obama's recent visit to the Philippines  coincided with the formal signing of a new Philippine-US security pact, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Under the new agreement, US forces will gain rotational access to Philippine bases, adding much needed momentum to the Obama Administration's 'pivot to Asia'. The EDCA could significantly deepen America's strategic footprint in Asia, with Filipino officials poised to offer up to five military bases to US military personnel. Among Philippine bases under consideration are Clark airfield, Subic Bay, Poro Point, Camp Aguinaldo and Fort Magsaysay. 

The EDCA primarily builds on existing Philippine-US defence cooperation schemes by expanding joint military exercises, enhancing interoperability between the two allies' armed forces, and deepening US assistance to the Philippines in both traditional and non-traditional security realms. With the US increasing its military access across the Philippines, there will most likely be a drawdown in US counter-terrorism related operations in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where Navy SEALs, US Army Special Forces and other commandos have been assisting and training their Filipino counterparts since 2002.  

The Philippines' enhanced counter-terrorism capabilities, backed by an increasingly promising peace process in Mindanao, has encouraged a greater focus on developing the country's conventional military capabilities as well as its ability to cope with humanitarian disasters, many due to extreme weather conditions amid intensifying climate change. 

Filipino officials hailed the EDCA as a reflection of a deepening bilateral military alliance, enhancing the Philippines' capabilities to manage emerging security challenges. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, a key figure behind the deepening Philippine-US defence alliance, argued that the EDCA 'mark(ed) a milestone in (Philippine-US) shared history as enduring treaty allies,' paving the way for a 'new chapter for modern and mature partnership, firmly grounded on deeply held democratic values, common interests and shared aspirations.'

Critics, however, remain unconvinced, dismissing the new agreement as a strategic blunder which will deepen the Philippines' dependence on the US without necessarily deterring China's territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea. During his visit to Manila, Obama refused to clarify whether the US would come to the rescue of the Philippines if a conflict were to erupt over the disputed features in the South China Sea. He made it clear that the EDCA was not aimed at China, since Washington does not take a position on the sovereignty of disputed territories and is primarily concerned with freedom of navigation in international waters. He encouraged the Philippines' to pursue a rules-based diplomatic compromise with China, since 'it's inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in region.' 

The Philippine government is also expected to face significant opposition in the legislature, with leading legal experts such as Miriam Defensor-Santiago, chairperson of the Philippines Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, questioning the legality of the EDCA, since the Philippine constitution bars the establishment of permanent US bases in the country. 

In coming months, the Aquino Administration is expected to engage in a difficult showdown with the Senate, while in the absence of an absolute American military commitment it will have to contemplate a new diplomatic strategy towards China to avoid military confrontation.