The Philippines should mind a potentially bigger militarization of China in South China Sea as the US and its allies are kept busy by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; foreign policy experts warned in a virtual forum.

Resource persons at the forum included retired US Navy Capt. Carl Schuster, De la Salle International Studies professor Renato de Castro and University of the Philippines Political Science professor Jaime Naval.

“Watch out for China,” Naval said. “It advanced its South China Sea presence even during the pandemic and the moment Beijing calculates that the regional and extra-regional powers are distracted by Ukraine, it can embark on more adventurous acts.”

China claims more than 80 percent of the disputed waterway that overlaps with the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Each year, trillions of dollars of trade flow through the sea, which is also rich in fish and gas.

No one can afford to be busy with two wars in different regions at the same time, Naval said. Countries across the globe, including the US, support a United Nation-backed ruling in 2016 that voided China’s nine-dash line sea claims based on a 1940s map.

Russia has launched a devastating attack by air, land and sea on Ukraine, a European democracy of 44 million people, and its forces are on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv. President Vladimir Putin denied for months he would invade his neighbor but then he tore up a peace deal and sent forces across borders in Ukraine’s north, east and south.

“Since (the US and its allies are) busy elsewhere, they won’t have the time, resources, energy and attention to somehow actively engage in what we’re doing here,” Naval said.

This move does not necessarily have to be a physical war, Naval added. “We’re not living in a situation where you have to physically assault or invade a country to enforce your will.

That could be done through other means.”

De Castro said, “China’s game is to win without actually fighting in dealing with the other claimant states.”

“You try to buy your opponent,” De Castro said. “You create an image that you’re so powerful that others will not challenge you.”

“(China) can gain what they need from the Philippines by slowly taking over coastal islands, on one hand, and establishing economic partnerships with key members of the Philippine elite so they achieve an economic domination that allows them to direct Philippine policy,” he added.

Citing Japan’s invasion of the Philippines in World War II, De Castro noted it was clear that the Japanese occupation had proven to be very expensive because the Philippine resistance lasted during the entire war.

The Japanese army was also being bled out. China will look back at this and think that doing the same would be too costly.

“China prefers to go after easy meat, so I don’t see a full-scale invasion in the Philippines,” Schuster said.

“What I see is like little rat chews, little bites along the edge until they’ve taken the territory that gives them a stranglehold on you.”

“China’s not really interested in ruling the Philippines,” Schuster said.

“China’s interested in driving the Philippines to behave the way China wants the Philippines to behave in its relations to China.”

Schuster cited the possibility of China halting its “bullying” in the South China Sea as Filipinos choose a new president this year.

It might focus first on a possible wealth and joint exploration deal with the incoming government to gain favor, he added.

China would prioritize its own interests either way, said Herman Joseph Kraft, who heads the UP Department of Political Science.

“The Chinese have their own agenda in the South China Sea that won’t be dictated to by Philippine national elections,” Kraft said.

The Philippines should focus on expanding its economy to cut Chinese leverage, Schuster said. “Power leverage over the next 15 years is going to be driven by economic developments rather than the military.

If the military is a shield, think of economics as your sword.”