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South China Sea: only diplomacy can avert open China-Philippines conflict

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“I thought the Philippines was the friend of China,” Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr reportedly said during a spirited exchange earlier this year with China’s envoy in Manila amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.

In public, the Filipino president has expressed a similar mixture of exasperation and bafflement. “I don’t understand why this happened,” Marcos complained shortly after the Philippine Coast Guard decided to cut a floating barrier installed by Chinese counterparts around the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
While expressing perplexity, Marcos has also taken an increasingly uncompromising stance on the maritime disputes. “What we will do is to continue defending the Philippines, the maritime territory of the Philippines, the rights of our fishermen to catch fish in areas where they have been doing it for hundreds of years already,” he vowed in a nod to a wave of anti-Beijing sentiment at home.
In response to accusations of bullying and environmental destruction in disputed areas, China has scolded the Philippines and demanded it not “stir up trouble” and create “a political drama from fiction”. In a telltale of growing tensions, both sides are conducting maritime drills in the South China Sea to reinforce their claims in the area.

Both nations have shown little sign of backing down so far. If current trends continue, the Philippines and China risk sleepwalking into direct conflict soon. While taking a tough stance abroad might yield political dividends for Filipino and Chinese leaders at home, it is incumbent on them to sincerely pursue a new modus vivendi in the South China Sea.

Few saw this coming. Just a year ago, the newly elected Marcos signalled broad continuity with his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who proactively courted warm relations with China. Following his first phone conversation with President Xi Jinping, Marcos vowed to shift bilateral ties to a “ higher gear”. He reiterated the same position during his meeting with China’s chief diplomat Wang Yi, who welcomed a “new golden era” in bilateral ties.
Visiting Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr (right) walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 4. Photo: Xinhua via AP
However, it was his relatively short visit to China in January which marked the beginning of an increasingly embittered bilateral relationship. For his part, Marcos was reportedly disappointed with his failure to gain any major concessions from China, especially in the South China Sea. At the very least, he had hoped to gain a concrete agreement on earlier plans to jointly develop the vast energy resources in the Reed Bank.
According to former Philippine Supreme Court justice Antonio Caprio, who has been a leading legal adviser to multiple presidents, Marcos hoped to restart suspended discussions over a “service contract” energy exploration deal with Beijing. But China has insisted on its sovereign claims over the energy-rich area, thus the lack of any breakthrough.
Not long after, Marcos approved the expansion of military ties with the United States under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). In response, Beijing accused Manila of stoking regional tensions, setting the stage for an increasingly tense bilateral relations.
In the succeeding months, Manila complained of multiple incidents with Chinese maritime forces. First came accusations that a Chinese vessel pointed a military-grade laser at Filipino ships, then came reports of Chinese Coast Guard blasting Philippine supply vessels with water cannons in the Second Thomas Shoal.
Not long after, the Philippines said Chinese vessels were engaged in environmental destruction in Manila-claimed islands in the Spratlys. China’s unilateral placement of floating barrier around the fisheries-rich Scarborough Shoal did not make the situation any easier.

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Philippine coastguard removes Chinese barrier at disputed Scarborough Shoal in South China Sea

Philippine coastguard removes Chinese barrier at disputed Scarborough Shoal in South China Sea

By all indications, the two sides risk direct confrontation unless they proactively de-escalate tensions through a new modus vivendi in the South China Sea.

To begin with, the Philippines can seek to actively reassure China against any potential US weaponisation of EDCA bases against China. This is particularly crucial in the case of Philippine bases near the southern shores of Taiwan. Manila is still negotiating the size and nature of the US military presence in its northernmost provinces, so there is room for strategic adjustment.

Is US-Philippines military base deal a big threat to China?

Moreover, the Philippines can reconsider its threats to file an additional international arbitration case against China as well as reject growing suggestions to add its military facilities in the Spratly Islands to the list of new EDCA bases with the US.
In exchange, however, China should stop preventing the Philippines from reinforcing its presence within its own exclusive economic zone, most notably in the Second Thomas Shoal, which as a low-tide elevation is not even a territory to be claimed. Moreover, China should refrain from harassing and preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing their traditional fishing grounds in places such as the Scarborough Shoal.

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Livelihoods lost: The fishermen snared in the Scarborough Shoal dispute

Livelihoods lost: The fishermen snared in the Scarborough Shoal dispute

It’s important for the two sides to explore constructive deals to enhance mutual trust and goodwill. They should restart negotiations over a possible service contract deal in the Reed Bank area, which is vital to the Philippines’ energy security. In exchange for implicit recognition of Philippine sovereign rights in the area, Manila can contract a China-backed company to help explore and develop the potentially vast hydrocarbon resources in the area.

The Philippines and China can restart discussions over largely unfulfilled infrastructure investments negotiated under the Duterte administration. They can also explore joint environmental conservation initiatives, especially in disputed areas where overfishing has wrought massive ecological costs.

Proactive, subtle diplomacy is needed given the highly sensitive nature of the disputes and their domestic political implications. The diplomatic resolution of Philippine-China maritime disputes will be an uphill battle, but the alternative is to risk sleepwalking into a devastating conflict in one of the world’s most important waterways.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific, and the forthcoming Duterte’s Rise

Article was originally published from here

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