By Arun Mohan Sukumar
In announcing his country’s “separation from the United States”, has the Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte radically altered the nature of the South China Sea dispute? Not quite. The US effort to influence its outcome has, nevertheless, come a full circle. Duterte’s remarks indicate that the political costs of the SCS dispute to the parties outweigh potential benefits from the legal imprimatur that comes from an arbitral award. The president’s proposal for the Philippines’ “military” and “economic” separation from the US, made during his state visit to Beijing, are unlikely to change political realities in Asia. Far from tipping the balance of power in the region, it is unclear whether Filipinos themselves will endorse a break in ties with Washington D.C that their president has sought. But the “greased cartridge” reason for Duterte’s remarks is the simmering tension in the region brought to bear by the SCS arbitral award. Indeed, many analysts here in China see Duterte’s intervention as “pragmatic”, meant mostly as course correction after the ITLOS arbitral tribunal rubbished many of China’s “historic” claims on the South China Sea. Three outcomes are likely to follow from the Beijing-Manila detente:
- Duterte’s remarks signal he is willing to put the SCS arbitral award on the slow burner, and seek a political resolution to the dispute, which reduces pressure on China to escalate its rhetoric. They are also likely to dissuade Beijing from taking dramatic measures, such as suspending its obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. After the ITLOS tribunal based in the Hague ruled in July that the “nine-dash-line” had no historical or legal basis, the sharpest criticism of Beijing’s position has come from the United States and Japan. Japan may not push China into a corner, given the verdict’s own implications for the Xiaoyu/ Senkaku island dispute. Without the support of key allies, the Obama administration’s room to criticise Beijing too will be limited. Duterte’s remarks will be interpreted in China as an attempt to negotiate the SCS dispute on his own terms — not necessarily in favour of Beijing, but to project his image regionally as an independent interlocutor.
- The Duterte regime’s proposed “separation” from the US is unlikely to diminish the latter’s influence in the region. The United States remains the preponderant military power in Asia, and while there is uncertainty about the future of economic re-engineering currently under way through the AIIB-OBOR-RCEP trifecta, it is premature to judge their outcomes as favourable to China alone. Future trading configurations are likely to create captive markets for China, but its greater integration with Central and South East Asian markets will also constrain Beijing’s political ability to adopt unilateral measures. What Duterte’s comments reflect is a reluctance among smaller countries in the region to get caught in the cross-hairs of the US-China struggle for power in Asia. Take the US’ closest partners in the region: Japan, South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines. They are all likely to pursue independent relations with Beijing: resurgent sentiments of nationalism in Japan and Philippines will continue to motivate bilateral ties with China; the necessity to manage North Korea will drive the Seoul-Beijing dynamic; and Singapore will engage China with a view to ensure plurilateral Free Trade Agreements do not disrupt those already in place. In short, the rise of China in Asia will be managed not by the United States, but by regional powers pursuing largely independent foreign policies.
- With Duterte likely to make similar, dramatic interventions in the future, the region will feel an acute need for a stable and independent arbiter of relations, projecting the ASEAN into ever greater prominence. Within the ASEAN too, the push and pull among perceived ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ China camps will intensify, making consensus on political issues — already difficult to achieve — almost elusive. The China-ASEAN declaration of conduct on the South China Sea is no closer to being realised than it was before Duterte’s statement last week, but it may prompt Beijing to work bilaterally with littoral states for a resolution of maritime boundaries. In any event, these decisions will need ASEAN’s stamp of approval, which may be a good outcome given the unequal bargaining position that China enjoys against individual countries.
Where does this leave India? New Delhi’s position on the South China Sea dispute, and in particular the ITLOS award, is a factor of its bilateral relationship with Beijing. Were China to continue obstructing India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or tighten its strategic embrace of Pakistan, it is likely India will sharpen its tone on the SCS dispute as well. Foreign Secretary Jaishankar’s remarks at the Indian Ocean Conference hosted by the India Foundation in September— moving the Indian line forward from the Ministry of External Affairs’ initial response to the arbitral award — reflect this approach. Duterte’s statements, however, complicate matters for India. No longer can New Delhi expect the United States or US allies to effectively sustain pressure on China over the SCS dispute. Consequently, should the South China Sea become less of a flashpoint, it will ironically limit India’s ability to use the dispute as a bargaining chip. India’s longstanding and continued endorsement of the “centrality” of ASEAN in regional matters holds it in good stead, given the rising profile of the organisation. Ultimately, a political resolution of the South China Sea dispute works to India’s favour, because it will reflect the limits of Chinese power in the region, and encourage smaller powers to push for shared arrangements in Asia’s governance architecture.