Strategic Culture and the South China Sea Disputes

31 August 2015

by Lucio Blanco Pitlo

Elements of strategic culture like geography, history and politics influence the formation of state policies, including the significance given to disputed territorial and maritime spaces. Alastair Iain Johnston in his 1995 article entitled “Thinking about Strategic Culture”(published in the journal, International Security) defined strategic culture as: an ideational milieu which limits behavioral choices.”

The Harvard International Relations Professor also said that itis assimilated with the nation’s or strategic community’s identity and features which finally mold the state’s behavior. Strategic culture is that set of shared beliefs, assumptions, and modes of behavior, derived from common experiences and accepted narratives (both oral and written), that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups, and which determine appropriate ends and means for achieving security objectives.”A general appreciation of Chinese and Philippine strategic culture will help unravel some potential rationale behind the importance attached by the two states to the contested features and waters in the South China Sea (SCS).

As an archipelago and maritime nation, the sea has always been important for the Philippines, and renewed importance assigned to it in recent years is a welcome development. Unfortunately, a growing number of poaching and illegal fishing incidents (which amounts to considerable economic losses), degradation of the marine environment, and rising maritime ambitions from its neighbors has to happen before the country can get back to its senses. The unity of the islands and the seas is integral to the country’s identity, survival and future development; maritime defense and security is thus deemed crucial. The Philippines is actively pushing for international acceptance of the concept of archipelagic state in a series of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea conferences, becoming one of the five sovereign archipelagic nations along with Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Bahamas.

The Philippines has a deep connection with the sea. In fact, for a long time, the country was known as the “Pearl of the Orient Seas.” The country’s earliest human remains (“Tabon” Man) were found in caves in Palawan not far from the sea. Key pre-colonial power centers are largely situated in coastal or delta areas, like Sulu, Butuan and Manila. Because of its geographic nature, the sea was the main channel for inter-island connectivity. Livelihood and the economy was also largely tied to the sea and this is still evident to this day. Filipinos built the mighty trans-ocean galleons that connected the Far East with the New World and Europe for 250 years. Since the 1980s, the country is also a primary provider of sailors for global shipping and logistics. Finally, the Philippines is also a major world exporter of fisheries products. Read more…

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