Year-Ender Blow In South China Sea: A West Philippine Sea Conundrum – Analysis

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Just before 2022 comes to an end, China was found to be reclaiming more lands in Spratly Islands, particularly over Eldad Reef (Malvar Reef), Lankiam Cay (Panata Island), Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe Reef), and Sandy Cay. Meanwhile, another incident which took place last Nov. 20 involved the China Coast Guard reportedly interfering with efforts of Western Command personnel to recover an unidentified floating object spotted near Pag-asa Island.

The aforesaid activities were monitored close to Pag-asa Island and frantically a violation of the ‘landmark arbitration case’ in 2016. The ruling, which China refused to recognize, states that the Philippines has sovereign rights to exploit energy reserves inside its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, where both Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal are located. The Department of National Defense (DND) officer-in-charge Senior Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr. has expressed concern on the presence of Chinese vessels as it confirmed the latter’s presence.

In that regard, Iroquois is 127 nautical miles from the Philippine Island of Palawan in the disputed waters, which U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited last month to reiterate Washington’s defense commitments to Manila and its support for the 2016 arbitration ruling.

In response to recent observations of Chinese military activity near Pag-asa Island, the Department of National Defense (DND) has given orders to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to increase their level of presence in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

There was no immediate comment from the Chinese embassy in Manila. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr will go to Beijing next month (January 2023) for a state visit.

Arbitration Case in Context

It was in 2013; nine (9) years since the Philippines’ arbitration case against China was filed. What prompted the filing of the case was the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff.  Of course, there are more factors than those that can be underscored aside from the aforesaid. Another is when tensions between the two countries escalated when Chinese surveillance ships prevented Philippine authorities from apprehending Chinese vessels found poaching endangered Philippine marine species at the shoal. 

On the other hand, the January 2013 submission by China was in opposition to a legal filing by Vietnam and Malaysia on May 6, 2009. Vietnam and Malaysia made a joint submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in accordance with Article 76 of UNCLOS seeking to extend their continental shelves beyond their “standard” 200 nautical miles. The Chinese responded with a note verbale asserting “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and its adjacent waters” and attached a map depicting a nine-dashed line (also known as the U-shaped line) as reference to its claims over most of the South China Sea.

Both sides have immensely exhausted all means but there must a decision to be rendered by the higher court authorized to deal with the matter. The binding decision from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Netherlands, last July 12, 2016, dealt a serious blow to China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, a 1.4 million-square-mile body of water that contains the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In effect, the ruling was rejected immediately by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Thus, China’s focus was startled, and it has left Beijing in an exceedingly difficult position where it has to balance an angry, nationalistic population against an international community that expects it to back down. Meanwhile, while we see a robust economic tie between People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of the Philippines last Duterte Administration, here lies a question: what is at stake after the Hague Ruling in the current Marcos Administration? Where will recent developments be heading? Would it be a boon or bane?

South China Sea Dispte at a Glance

The dispute over maritime features in the South China Sea has been on-going for decades and involved other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia. To understand it further, the South China Sea contains three groups of maritime features—the Spratly and Paracel groups of Islands and Scarborough Shoal. All countries involved in the maritime dispute recognize that the sea is rich in resources such as fish and other marine life, and reserves of oil and natural gas.

The sea is also a major shipping lane in Southeast Asia prompting many countries worldwide to call for restraint so as not to disrupt the vital trade route. The 3.5 million square km sea is also strategic as it provides access to nearly the entire Southeast Asian region.

Legally speaking, Philippines asked the Arbitration Tribunal to invalidate China’s “nine-dash line” claim because it does not conform to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty signed and ratified by both China and the Philippines. It is regarded as the constitution of the seas. Arbitration refers to a process in which a party submits a “dispute” to an unbiased and independent third party. Its main goal is to amicably settle and conclude the disputes presented.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration is an intergovernmental organization established in 1899 that designates arbitral tribunals to resolve disputes between and among nations. It is based in The Hague, Netherlands, and before which the arbitration case was presented for settlement. Philippines brought the case before the tribunal to dispute China’s claim of “indisputable sovereignty” over almost the entire South China sea through its “nine-dash line” claim.

Years passed, the Arbitral Tribunal has reached a historic decision on the decades-old maritime dispute over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) last 12 July 2016.  The historic case aims to invalidate China’s claim of “historic rights” over the South China Sea through its “nine-dash line” claim that overlaps with the Philippines 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Again, as mentioned earlier, China has refused to participate in the proceedings saying it does not recognize the jurisdiction of the tribunal and has reiterated that it will not abide by any decision of the court. Up until now, China has remained adamant to abide with the ruling six (6) years ago. 

United States and China Factor in Multilateralism Arrangement

In the recent incident in West Philippine Sea, United States had shown proactive stance. US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said last 20 December 2022, “The United States supports the Philippines’ continued calls upon the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to respect the international law of the sea in the South China Sea, as reflected in the UN (United Nations) Convention on the Law of the Sea, and its legal obligations pursuant to the 2016 arbitral ruling,”

Meanwhile, to realize US’ presence in continuum, first, having Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951 between RP and US, is a good indicator that US is able to maintain such personal and strategic relationship until now. Everything begins in an intimate engagement and so, the US must use all fronts asymmetric reach i.e. DIME (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic). 

Though D & E, the US can maintain its relevance to Republic of the Philippines (RP) since our political security framework is mostly patterned with US. Philippine’s DSOM (defense system of management) for example is in lined with US’ operational mechanism and so, RP’s approach will always look upon the paradigm shift of US DoD (Department of Defense). In other words, this is also a subtle optics from US vantage point regardless of whether they intentionally practice such optics in policy level.  

Moreover, US must allot budget for further Main Operating Bases (MOB) in RP like in Pampanga, Cebu, Davao as strategic points. MOBs are usually larger installations and facilities located in the territory of reliable allies and I believe, RP is still a reliable partner / ally of US despite some lop-sided treatment of US when it comes to top-tier materiel exchange (modern defense and military equipment) we are supposed to be getting from them. Since US was able to save a lot from Middle Eastern withdrawal in military expenditures, why not they allot more budget to ASEAN such as of Philippines at least in defense and economic diaspora.  

This is operationally and strategically effective approach such as in Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa (Japan), and Camp Humphreys in Korea with vast infrastructure and family support facilities that serves as the hub of operations in support of smaller, more austere bases they have. All of these territories have reached US’ defense presence despite relative historic differences like US-Japan’s historic fallout back in World War II (Pearl Harbor vis-a-vis Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings). 

At larger extent, this can be useful for pre-positioning logistics support or as venues for joint operations with host militaries (Balikatan Exercise and VFA-related field training exercises) as both states may also expand form there with different approach e.g. with dash of socio-cultural and educational exchanges. China is also doing this realized strategy to permanently leave a footprint in Central Asia i.e. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and even in African allies where they want to establish defense bases if not economic hubs. However, China’s dealings are with interest (debt for example). In this regard, the Philippines must also be vigilant on any chip-ins from US, China, and alike. 

Given the aforementioned, the US has to incrementally observe how its political security subject matter experts and policy direction to be in lined with RP. The new administration may not be hedging with US given its more US-inclined and open monetary & fiscal policy with the aforementioned. 

But then again, we do not want to see another ruckus and friction between US and RP just because of political difference (Trump-Duterte admin era) banking on a stronger press of Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014. May US not mistakenly create any nuances to trigger that action from Marcos Administration. Somehow, the previous administration helped RP to challenge US to court our nation while RP is entering to multilateral defense ties with other states i.e. India, Japan, and Russia. But the same challenge also sacrificed some partnerships with US in economic level (business and industrial scope).

On the other hand, China is economically flexing its muscle beyond pandemic. Economically speaking, as the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) of China opened last 14 May 2017, new waves of opportunities and challenges have turned in even in trade war i.e. chip wars and basic commodities. It started to open its economy more openly this last quarter of 2022 as well as its tourism by next quarter of 2023 where Japan also seen this as an important development not to overlook; given the origin of COVID-19 from China itself in last quarter of 2019.

Furthermore, OBOR is technically to burnish President Xi Jinping’s stature as a world-class statesman at an international gathering centered on his signature foreign policy effort envisioning a future world order in which all roads lead to Beijing. It aims to reassert China’s past prominence as the dominant power in Asia whose culture and economy deeply influenced its neighbors as far as Africa and Europe. It speaks deeply to Chinese pride in their country’s explosive economic growth and political clout after a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers that formally ended with Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in 1949.

The initiative also furthers the Xi administration’s reputation for muscular foreign policy. Under Xi, China has strongly asserted its claim to virtually the entire strategic South China Sea and established the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) as a global institution alongside such bodies as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In connection with OBOR, it is believed that it’s been loosely defined and appears to be including more and more projects of peripheral importance and questionable value. Since so many of the states involved have weak economies and limited capacity for growth outside of mining, the potential for waste and corruption is high, raising the possibility of small returns on the vast sums being spent and massive losses for the Chinese state banks funding the projects. Here is the danger, the initiative could also set back the goal of establishing a domestic economy centered on consumption rather than investment. Meaning, China’s investment priority should be at home, not abroad. It is possible that such forward-leaping overseas investments may delay domestic development. It is easy to just give out money. China has to prove that these projects are sound, and they have the management expertise to carry them through.

In the Philippines, our foreign policy appeared to dovetail with what the United States wanted. In that case, we have been accustomed with the notion that the only pattern that can be made is only from U.S. nonetheless. Suddenly, there was a paradigm shift last administration. In the light of lifting his hand to another friend (China), Duterte assured President Xi Jinping that his foreign policy would be different and that he would want to establish economic ties with Beijing. We have seen a Philippines which is willing to adopt and then align the foreign policy in the name of trade. In fact, he said before, “So we’re getting a relief now from our hardships because a lot of money is coming in.”

Fascinatingly, the recent year likewise revealed a few emerging and striking developments on the RP-PRC relations. There were some areas of cooperation and support between the Philippines and China, which to some and as China suggests, indicate a stronger and more improved relationship between the two States.  

Meanwhile, beyond this ASEAN-related issue, the only key international issues directly affecting the region are the following: the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, maritime security cooperation, terrorism and extremism. 

Analysis: Strategic Takeaways

Despite the Philippines’ “diplomatic efforts” in resolving this issue with China since Aquino, Duterte, and Marcos Administration – through the provisions of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC), the latter still continued its “cabbage” strategy in claiming majority of the South China Sea (i.e. taking small steps at a time such as enforcing its “nine-dash” claim in 2009 and “forcefully exploiting” living and non-living resources from the islands and the Scarborough Shoal).

Even though the Philippines then concluded that submitting an arbitration case to the UN under international law would be the most appropriate way to resolve this dispute, we can observe that it still has no bearing until now. In other words, The UN tribunal has no enforcement power. It needs a UN security council resolution to enforce the ruling. However, China and its main ally Russia have veto powers and either of them can block any adverse UN resolution. 

Policy Recommendations

Although, the last Duterte Administration was able to re-stabilize the relationship between PRC and RP, we still have to stick on our original claim based guided by the rule of law. Let us not forget that Hague Ruling is indelible and irreversible.

Moreover, a continued effort in trade relation but in no offense to China, the Philippines must learn how to stratify its power with other states like Japan, Australia, and Russia when it comes to portfolio investment of any foreign direct investment (FDI) for that matter without compromise on our own economic and environmental gains.

In military level, beefing up the military might prepare our nation in the next possible clout with China in disputed water. We do not need to heed away from the US-RP Balikatan Exercise just because of personal retaliation. We may veer away at a certain distance but not too far away to avoid too much dependency with hegemon like U.S.

Equi-balancing is the key to maintain harmony with China and U.S. Philippines must avoid jingoism and any political rhetoric against those peripheral players. However with little aggressiveness, the Philippines would not engage in any military build-up and opposed any attempt to deploy weapons on the islands. This is what we call the defensive realist approach by the Philippines. While Philippines is trying to strengthen its military, it does not want to impress to China that they are like Japan which acts like drawing away from Pacifism. The President knows what he is doing but opt to be wiser than Xi Jinping. The keyword here is BALANCE, not bias nor biased.

Lastly, ASEAN Integration, if it will succeed, may help pushing and upholding the principle in building the Code of Conduct despite relatively small states within our region. 

Way Ahead & Conclusion

The reversal of policy may have given us leverage to accentuate our interest to tame the dragon (China) but we must always put premium to our own national interest that by recognizing our legal victory is the victory of the Filipino people. This should always remain the foundation of our aspirations in our foreign and defense policies and collective effort to push what we need to.

In line with the negotiations set by the parties involved, at least, the Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China. On numerous occasions, dating back to 1995, the Philippines has been exchanging views with China to peacefully settle these disputes. To this day, a solution is still elusive. 

Hence, we hope that the Hague Ruling shall bring this dispute to a durable solution beyond in 2023; beyond the merit of law that was long decided and in actual positioning in the South China Sea. 

*Ideas and/or views expressed here are entirely independent and not in any form represent author’s organization and affiliation.

Jumel Gabilan Estrañero is a defense, security, & political analyst and a university lecturer in the Philippines. He has completed the Executive Course in National Security at the National Defense College of the Philippines and has participated in NADI Track II discussions in Singapore (an ASEAN-led security forum on terrorism). His articles have appeared in Global Security Review, Geopolitical Monitor, Global Village Space, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, Manila Times, Malaya Business Insights, Asia Maritime Review, The Nation (Thailand), Southeast Asian Times, and Global Politics and Social Science Research Network. He worked in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Office of Civil Defense, National Security Council-Office of the President, and now in  in the Department of the National Defense. He also lectures in De La Salle University Philippines and Lyceum of the Philippines as part-time lecturer.  He is the co-author of the books titled: Disruptive Innovations, Transnational Organized Crime and Terrorism: A Philippine Terrorism Handbook, and Global Security Studies Journal (Springer Link, United States) to name a few with his co-author. He also completed ASEAN Law Academy Advanced Program in Center for International Law, National University Singapore. He loves his God, family, church, and his loved ones

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