Despite the perceived turbulence and stormy outlook arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the current security situation in the South China Sea remains stable. Why? Because there is no doubt that normal navigational activities for international trade and commerce remain unhampered.
However, unilateral military, paramilitary, development and even scientific activities of claimants and some user states involving some major powers, are causing occasional security tensions on the ground and serious political anxieties among officials. If not peacefully managed, these unilateral activities can lead to unintended violent encounters at sea.
To maintain the much desired peace, it is therefore essential for all parties to be reminded again and again of the utmost need to exercise self-restraint in conducting counterproductive unilateral activities that can be misunderstood and can potentially damage bilateral and multilateral efforts of promoting friendship and cooperation in the South China Sea. If at all, unilateral activities must be pursued responsibly that is decisively mindful of existing international laws, sensitive and emphatic to respective national positions of parties, respectful of sovereignty and sovereign rights of claimants, as well as cognizant of the gains of multilateral cooperation to avoid violent conflicts if not totally settle territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The 2 March 2022 incident between China and the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal was a bitter example on how unilateral activities can truly threaten peace and stability in the South China Sea. The Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest for the incident. The Philippine government accused China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel with bow number 3305 for conducting a dangerous close distance maneuvering over an area of approximately 21 yards (19.2 m) in the direction of Philippine vessel (Boat of the Republic of the Philippines) BRP Malabrigo. According to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), “This constrained the maneuvering space of BRP Malabrigo – a clear violation of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).”
But Wang Wengbin, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stressed that the Scarborough Shoal is China’s “inherent territory” arguing that the Philippines should “avoid interfering” with its patrols in the area.
Another unfortunate incident happened on 4 April 2022 in the Northern part of Palawan province where CCG vessel 4201 was seen tailing the Philippine surveillance vessel, Geo Coral, and its support ship, Mariska G while doing some work to develop natural gas and oil in Service Contract 75. While the CCG vessel kept safe distance from the two Philippine ships, the recent incident encouraged the Philippine government to suspend activities in SC 75.
Apparently, unilateral patrol and development activities of the two parties can truly raise the risk of unintended armed conflicts arising from accidents, miscalculations, and errors in judgment. Unilateral actions can also undermine useful efforts of the two countries to promote bilateral cooperation in the South China Sea in order to peacefully and pragmatically manage their existing territorial disputes and maritime jurisdictional conflicts.
Thus, it is really important for the Philippines and China to avoid unilateral activities that can harm friendly bilateral relations that both have built through the years. Both countries should refrain from conducting activities that can cause misunderstanding that may even lead to unnecessary accidents that are inimical not only to good bilateral relations but are also harmful to national and regional security interests.
Towards this end, the Philippines and China must vigorously sustain their Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM) in the South China Sea even beyond the Duterte administration in order to develop appropriate approaches for the two parties to encourage coordinated bilateral actions and cooperation initially in the Scarborough Shoal and eventually in the Greater South China Sea region. Coordinated bilateral actions can reduce the risk of accidents while the two parties continue their respective patrols in accordance with their own domestic considerations and requirements. Implementing coordinated bilateral patrols in the Scarborough Shoal is more doable and manageable because only the two parties are involved, unlike in the Spratlys where there are more players where effective coordination and pragmatic cooperation are great challenges.
In the Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines and China can promote the principle of Duty to cooperate more pragmatically because only two parties are at stake where addressing differences are less complicated to handle. In this particular area of the South China Sea, the Philippines and China can discuss not only coordinated patrols but also bilateral fishing management cooperation, maritime environmental research, marine environmental protection, safety of navigation and communication at sea, search and rescue operations, and combatting transnational crimes including international terrorism. These areas of cooperation are, in fact, mandated by the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea and in the ongoing negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
At present, the implementation of the DOC and the negotiation on the COC are facing tremendous difficulties because of the current pandemic and other persistent factors that disrupt regional actions. But the Philippines and China can start the discussion to have their Bilateral Code of Conduct in the Scarborough Shoal (BCOCSS) in order to pursue bilateral actions. This bilateral COC can compliment rather undermine the ongoing negotiation on the China-ASEAN COC.
If the Philippines and China can have the political will to come out with their COC in the Scarborough Shoal and implement it well, this can also encourage others to have bilateral COCs with China that can provide the strong foundations for a regional COC. If the Philippines and China can promote bilateral COC and encourage others to follow-suit in support of the a regional COC, there is no other direction in the South China Sea but peace, friendship and cooperation.
*Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD, is currently the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS), a member of the board of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC) and an Adjunct Research Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS). He is also the Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) while serving as a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies, Miriam College of the Philippines. This analysis is based on his talk delivered during the South China Sea Sub-forum of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2022 held on 22 April 2022.