Despite countless debates and numerous discussions on the many ramifications of the South China Sea, it is still very lamenting to stress the lack of informed public understanding of the scope and nature of conflicts in this area that is considered to be one of the major flashpoints of conflict not only in Asia but also in the entire world.
South China Sea disputes are often associated with the Spratly dispute involving Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. China and Vietnam claims the whole of Spratlys while Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines only claim part of it.
Taiwan is also a party to the Spratly dispute because it occupies Itu Aba, the largest geographic feature in the area. Because members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) uphold a one-China policy recognizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the legitimate national government, Taiwan is not included in the ongoing negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
Beyond the Spratly dispute, however, there are four other conflicts in the South China Sea that are bilateral in nature: 1) The Paracel conflict involving China and Vietnam; 2) The Scarborough Shoal conflict involving China and the Philippines; 3) The Pratas conflict involving China and Taiwan; and 4) The Natuna conflict involving China and Indonesia. Parties do not consider these areas as disputed areas because of their existing sovereignty positions. In the case of the Pratas conflict, China regards it as an internal issue but Taiwan asserts that it is an international issue. But there is no doubt that these four conflicts add to the current escalation of overall security tensions in the South China Sea.
Currently, parties to the Spratly dispute, which is multilateral in nature, are negotiating for the conclusion of the COC in order to peacefully manage territorial and maritime conflicts in the South China Sea. But there is still no clarity on the geographic scope of the COC. Vietnam and the Philippines want the COC to include the Paracels and the Scarborough Shoal. But China wants the COC to only cover the Spratly, as it prefers to handle the Paracels and the Scarborough Shoal bilaterally with the other party.
Thus, there are two levels of conflict in the South China Sea: bilateral level and the multilateral level. Conflicts in the Paracel islands, Scarborough Shoal, Pratas islands and Natuna islands are bilateral in nature involving China and other parties. The Spratlys is the only area where conflict is multilateral in nature.
Pending the conclusion of the COC, China and the Philippines currently pursue a bilateral approach to address their differences on territorial and maritime issues through the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM) in the South China Sea. Proposed during the state visit of President Rodrigo R. Duterte to China in 2016, the two countries launched the BCM in 2017.
The BCM is an exemplary practice in the peaceful management of conflicts in the South China Sea upholding a bilateral approach. It is an effective confidence building measure (CBM) that repairs damaged bilateral ties between China and the Philippines caused by the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff and the 2013-2016 international arbitration case. Though the BCM does not have the illusion of immediately resolving Philippines-China conflicts in the South China Sea, it has become an effective tool to rebuild mutual trust, to reduce misunderstanding, and to promote pragmatic cooperation between the two parties by opening their respective channels of official communications. Moreover, the BCM has become an important step towards security risk management and armed conflict avoidance in the South China Sea. Most importantly, the BCM contributes to preventive diplomacy in the South China Sea.
Through the spirit of friendship reaffirmed by the BCM, it became instrumental for China and the Philippines to pursue functional cooperation in the South China. The BCM provided useful inputs for the signing in 2018 of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) between China and the Philippines on the development of natural gas and oil in the South China Sea. During the 5th BCM held in 2019, the two countries established the Working Group on Political Security and Fisheries Cooperation and the Working Group on Marine Environmental Research and Marine Environmental Protection.
Though the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic obstructed the regular holding of the BCM, China and the Philippines resumed the 6th BCM online on 21 May 2021. It was during this meeting when both parties exchanged views on the current situation in the South China Sea, maritime issues between the two countries, and ways to further expand exchanges and cooperation on maritime search and rescue, fisheries, ecological conservation, scientific research, and other areas like joint development and maritime law enforcement cooperation.
Indeed, the BCM has promoted better understanding of the South China Sea disputes between China and the Philippines. But, their current bilateral understanding is not yet enough to ensure bilateral cooperation, especially in the context of the conclusion of term of President Duterte in May 2022. Both countries need to exert their best efforts to sustain the BCM process beyond the Duterte administration because its eventual success can encourage other claimants to pursue similar undertakings in order to promote peace, friendship and cooperation in the South China Sea.
*The author is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and a member of the Board of Directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC).