In the joint statement issued at the conclusion of the state visit, the first by a Chinese head of state in 13 years, the Philippines and China acknowledged the dispute but agreed that it is not the sum of their bilateral ties. The two countries recognised their, and Asean’s, concerted efforts to foster relative stability in the contested sea. Even a controversial memorandum of understanding for joint oil and gas exploration was reached. Both sides also expressed support for crafting an effective code of conduct.
A week before the visit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stressed the importance of achieving a code of conduct as soon as possible. However, while such a code may build confidence and manage disputes between claimants, it may not necessarily ease tensions between great powers out to project their might into the tempestuous sea.
Duterte wants China, as the biggest claimant, to demonstrate responsibility through restraint and proper behaviour. This is not the first time he has asked China to temper its actions in the South China Sea; in August, he called out China for its bellicose air warnings to routine patrols in the area. At the same time, he also recognised the increasing US-China tussle over navigational and overflight freedoms in the contested sea and how this heightens the risk of potential conflict, with grave consequences for small littoral states like the Philippines.
This highlights the inadequacy of the code of conduct in governing interaction between claimant and non-claimant states. Hence, even with Manila’s best efforts – as Asean-China country coordinator – to shepherd the conclusion of an effective code, peace and stability in the strategic maritime space may prove elusive.
Despite relative stability in the past two years, China’s artificial islands and their capabilities still raise regional anxieties. While not referenced in the Asean-China summit statement, the chairman’s statements at the 33rd Asean Summit and sixth Asean-US Summit cited “concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”. Asean and the United States also “emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint”.
Moreover, while China’s installation of weather stations on its artificial islands may be in tune with its intent to provide public goods and play down its expanding security footprint, the dual nature of China’s structures and hardening of its effective occupation in the contested sea will not be taken lightly by other claimants.
Yet, incremental progress in confidence-building and dispute management continues to gather momentum. One concrete contribution of the 2018 Asean Summit is the adoption of a multilateral guideline to manage unintentional encounters between military aircraft. Asean countries and China also agreed to complete the first reading of the single draft code of conduct negotiating text by 2019. Before this, hotline communications between the foreign affairs ministries of the 11 countries had already gone operational, along with the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.
During Xi’s visit, Manila and Beijing agreed to exercise self-restraint and strengthen coastguard and military dialogue and liaison mechanisms, allowing rapid responses to on-the-ground situations, as well as enhancing mutual trust. Such mechanisms can help prevent situations from reaching crisis proportions. Both sides also agreed to promote maritime cooperation in non-sensitive areas such as ensuring safety of life at sea and marine environmental protection.
Duterte’s inclination for dialogue and quiet diplomacy with China over the South China Sea is unlikely to change as long as the “red lines” are observed. Filipinos were able to resume fishing in what they call Bajo de Masinloc (the Scarborough Shoal), which China had virtually occupied since the 2012 stand-off. China has yet to build structures on the shoal despite persistent rumours. Routine patrols in Philippine-held features in the Kalayaan (Spratlys) also continue, although they are not without incident.
In addition, China stayed away from undertaking unilateral drilling in the West Philippine Sea while both sides iron out a framework that would facilitate joint exploration. Although allegations of fishermen being harassed or intimidated surface, they are isolated incidents. As long as they remain so, the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism, Foreign Ministry Consultations and the Joint Coast Guard Committee for Maritime Cooperation will remain platforms for addressing concerns.
This month, Manila will convene the eighth Asean Maritime Forum (AMF) and the sixth Expanded AMF. Progress in handling maritime emergencies and promoting cooperation in the South China Sea may be tabled and, barring major incidents, the present course adopted by both sides will remain steady. That said, the US-China contest over military navigation and overflight in the strategic maritime space will continue to be a test of mettle.
This article appeared at South China Morning Post and is reprinted with permission.