Today, July 12, 2021, marking the 123rd Philippine Independence Day celebrated a month before, the Philippines will commemorate the 5th year anniversary of the verdict of the International Arbitral Tribunal on the case filed by the Philippines against China on maritime conflicts in the South China Sea.
Though the Philippine government regards the verdict as a legal victory that is “final and executory”, the Chinese government, however, asserts that the whole arbitration process is “illegal” whose ruling is “null and void, with no binding force”.
There is no doubt that the international arbitration case has unnecessarily left a bitter memory in Philippines-China relations. The international arbitration case brought their relations to the lowest point in their 46 years history of bilateral ties.
But five years in the aftermath of the release of the verdict, the time has come for the Philippines and China to really pursue comprehensive strategic cooperation as agreed by both countries during the state visit to Manila of President Xi Jingping in 2018. China and the Philippines can now move on in order to productively pursue joint cooperation in various fields not only to advance their common interests but also the general interests of the greater South China Sea region and the whole world.
Pending the resolution of their conflicts on the legal bearing of the international arbitration, the Philippines and China can pursue strategic and operational cooperation in initially five key areas: 1) Joint development of natural gas and oil; 2) Joint fishery management; 3) Joint marine scientific research and marine environmental protection; 4) Joint search and rescue operations; and, 5) Joint maritime law enforcement and security operations.
Joint Development of Natural Gas and Oil
The Philippines and China signed on 20 November 2018 the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation on Oil and Gas Development during the state visit to the Philippines of President Xi Jinping. This was a landmark agreement as both parties have strongly committed to cooperate rather than confront each other on oil and gas issues in the South China Sea. To implement the MOU, the two countries already formed the Intergovernmental Joint Steering Committee (IGJSC) on Oil and Gas Development.
The IGJSC held their first meeting on 28 October 2019 in Beijing during the 5th meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM) in the South China Sea. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 disrupted the meeting of the IGJSC. But the IGJSC should resume their meeting this year to continue their discussions on the following important concerns: 1) Legal framework for cooperation arrangements; 2) Scope of cooperation areas; 3) Taxation processes; and, 4) Dispute settlement mechanism.
The Philippines and China with the participation of Vietnam also pursued cooperation in oil and gas development when they implemented the Joint Marine Seismic Understanding (JMSU). Signed in 2005 as a tripartite arrangement involving the Philippine National Oil Corporation (PNOC), the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), and the Vietnam Oil and Gas Corporation (PetroVietnam), the JMSU covered natural gas and oil exploration activities in the South China Sea covering a total exploration area of 142,886 kilometers. But the project was discontinued in 2008 because of domestic problems in the Philippines.
Cooperation in oil and gas development is one important endeavor that China and the Philippines should really undertake in the post-arbitration period. Rather than quarrel on these resources, the two parties can share these resources for their common development and prosperity.
Joint Fishery Management
During the 5th BCM, the Philippines and China created the Working Group on Fishery Cooperation. The two countries can really cooperate in this field, as there already exist best practices of international fishery management cooperation in the South China Sea. Based on these best practices, China and the Philippines can pursue the following initial options to promote joint fishery management cooperation activities between the two countries: 1) Marine Protected Areas (MPA)/Marine Peace Park; 2) Regional Fishery Management Organization/Multilateral Fishery Agreements; and, 3) Aquaculture.
The Scarborough Shoal is an excellent area for China and the Philippines to pursue joint fishery management cooperation in the South China Sea because of its bilateral nature. Achievements and challenges in bilateral joint fishery management cooperation in the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines can even provide great lessons for the promotion of fishery management cooperation in the wider South China Sea region, particularly in the Spratlys where parties include not only China and the Philippines but also Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Joint Marine Scientific Research and Marine Environmental Protection
The 2002 Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and members of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) encourages all parties to cooperate in various fields like joint marine scientific research and marine environmental protection. The Philippines and Vietnam already cooperated in this field when they implemented the Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea (JOMSRE-SCS).
The Philippines and Vietnam pursued Phase 1 of JOMSRE where they conducted four expedition activities from 1996 to 2007. The Philippines and Vietnam presented the results of their activities in an international conference held in 2008.
With the promising results of Phase 1, the Philippines and Vietnam included China in the Phase 2 of the project following the 2008 conference. Thus, it became the Tripartite JOMSRE-SCS.
The three countries already held three meetings, so far, but the tripartite project failed to really take off because of some unresolved issues. Nonetheless, the Philippines and China can sustain their cooperation in this area based on exemplary experiences and lessons learned from JOMSRE.
Joint Search and Rescue Operations
The South China Sea is dangerous water not only because of territorial conflicts and maritime jurisdictional disputes but also because of harsh weather during typhoon seasons. To protect fishermen and other users in distress in the South China Sea, China and the Philippines can pursue cooperation in search and rescue operations.
Initial cooperation between the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) is an excellent starting point. Since the start of Duterte Presidency in 2016, CCG and PCG have maintained close contacts and frequently pursued high-level exchanges to promote cooperation in the area of capacity building, particularly on search and rescue operations, maritime safety and combating crimes at sea. CCG and PCG have established the hotline mechanism to intensify communication in mutually agreed areas. They have established the China- Philippines Joint Coast Guard Committee (JCGC) where both parties already held three meetings to date.
On 14 January 2020, CCG vessel 5204 visited Manila for a friendly visit — the first visit by a CCG to the Philippines. During the visit, the two parties held joint search, rescue and firefighting exercises. China and the Philippines should sustain these cooperative activities even during the COVID-19 pandemic in order for both countries to establish the habit of cooperation in search and rescue operations in their common areas of operations in the South China Sea.
Joint Maritime Law Enforcement and Security Operations
To protect the dwindling resources of the South China Sea from illegal activities, China and the Philippines need to cooperate in law enforcement and security operations. This requires not only the cooperation of their coast guards but also of their navies, especially if they start implementing projects in gas and oil development, joint fishery management, and marine environmental protection.
China and the Philippines should use their maritime forces not to guard against each other but to collaborate with one another in countering criminal and other unlawful activities in their common areas of responsibilities in the South China Sea. Successful bilateral cooperation in this field can encourage other claimants and user states to follow suit to build a community of shared future in the South China Sea.
Five years have passed since the release of the verdict of the International Arbitral Tribunal on the case filed by the Philippines on maritime issues in the South China Sea. The Philippine government hails the verdict as a legal victory. However, the Philippines can only enjoy its political victory if it pursues bilateral cooperation with China in areas discussed above.
China and the Philippines (and other claimants and user states for that matter) will benefit more from cooperation rather than confrontation in the South China Sea. Comprehensive strategic cooperation can transform the South China Sea from a sea of armed conflicts to a sea of friendship, peace and prosperity.