It cannot be said that China’s recent actions in the South China Sea have come as a surprise to the rest of the world. Indications of Beijing’s strategic objectives regarding this body of water have been detectable for years. From its territorial claims, to the construction of artificial islands, and their militarization, China has made clear its intention to dominate the South China Sea. What has yet to be determined is whether or not domination and conquest are interchangeable terms in Beijing’s strategic lexicon.
The potential benefits stemming from a Chinese conquest of the South China Sea are immeasurable. It would affirm China’s position as the preeminent power in Asia. The emerging geopolitical, and economic dictum of the 21st century is: ‘whoever controls the South China Sea controls the economies of Asia.’ The underlying logic that control of the sea lanes of communication through the South China Sea is crucial to the economic survival of Asia’s largest economies cannot be challenged. A brief glance at the South China Sea situation today leads people to believe that territorial claims, and assumptive natural resource deposits serve as the nucleus of the disputes. While these are important factors, it is the sea lanes, and their connection to the global economy that makes the South China Sea such a valuable body of blue real estate.
China claims “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters.” Action speaks louder than words, however. Unless China is compelled to support this declaration with the use of force, it’s a hollow statement. Commerce flows through the area with no interference from China. Warships and aircraft of the United States, and its allies conduct frequent freedom-of-navigation transits of the South China Sea and encounter minimal harassment by Peoples Liberation Army Navy forces. The encounters, while tense, remain peaceful. The one area where China has become more aggressive is fishery rights. More frequently, Chinese naval and coast guard ships have been challenging the fishing vessels belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South China Sea nations.
In May, 2019 this blog will be examining China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and how its drive to dominate and conquer these waters could play out in the coming months and years. New posts on this topic will appear every Monday next month.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is loudly warning China to keep its distance from an island in the South China Sea that is considered by Manila to be an official municipality of the Philippines. Thitu Island has been occupied by the Philippines since 1970. It is the second largest of the non-artificial islands in the Spratly chain, and has long been envied by China. Duterte has threatened to send his military troops on a ‘suicide mission’ if Chinese pressure around the island does not ease, or if Beijing makes a move to occupy it.
According to the Philippine military, hundreds of Chinese vessels from fishing boats, to Coast Guard cutters have swarmed the island. Yesterday the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement calling the presence of the Chinese ships a ‘clear violation of Philippine sovereignty.’ China’s maritime presence around Thitu Island has been consistent.
Despite the warning, Duterte has maintained a friendly tone towards China. In the same campaign speech where he spoke of the Thitu Island situation, the president stated his belief that China ‘just wants to be friends with us.’ In a sharp contrast to Duterte’s words, his military chiefs are growing more concerned with Chinese moves in the South China Sea. Duterte’s desire to curry favor from the United States and China simultaneously continues, and he remains either unconcerned with, or oblivious to the blowback his ‘on again-off again’ stance with China is creating.
The South China Sea has become alarmingly tense lately with the violation of the Median Line of the Taiwan Strait, and continuing US-led Freedom of Navigation exercises. In an alarmingly dangerous world, it will take little for a major conflict to brew up. The Thitu Island situation acts as the latest potential flashpoint in a region already filled with them.
The nations of the South China Sea region are looking for clarification on the chain of events that led to the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat last week near the Paracel Islands. The fishing boat sank on Wednesday after being rammed by a Chinese vessel according to a Vietnamese official. China claims otherwise. According to Beijing, its ship received a distress call from the fishing boat and arrived in the area as it was sinking. Subsequently, the Chinese ship sought aid for the fishing boat’s crew. China’s statement made no mention of a vessel ramming the Vietnamese boat, nor did it clarify who rescued the sailors.
If the offending vessel turned out to belong to the People’s Republic of China it would not come as a surprise to any Western Pacific nation-states. There have been several incidents of Chinese coast guard or maritime militia ships attacking Vietnamese fishing boats in recent years. The Chinese have made a routine habit out of driving non-Chinese fishing boats away from its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Normally, it is the coast guard, or maritime militia that performs these duties. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) stays out of these disputes and instead is used primarily when foreign warships sail in close proximity to China’s claims. Fishermen have been caught up in the South China Sea disputes often in recent years. The territorial claims made by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and a host of other nations have limited the areas where fishing can take place without harassment.
Western powers have increased their naval presence in the South China Sea to promote the freedom of navigation. Contrary to China’s claim that the waterway is solely its possession, the world views the South China Sea as international waters. The United States has taken a strong position in championing freedom of navigation rights. US warships make frequent transits of the sea, and purposely maneuver close to islands China has claimed, often inviting aggressive pushback from Beijing.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in Manila relations between the Philippines and China have improved considerably, while the PI’s relations with the United States have deteriorated to an extent. Duterte appears eager to move his nation out from beneath the shadow of the US and set it on a more independent course. Thursday’s remarks by the Philippine defense secretary are an example of this. Delfin Lorenzana said it is unlikely that the Philippines will allow the US to use his country as a springboard for freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. He pointed out that the US has numerous bases in the region that its ships and aircraft can use.
Under Beningo Aquino III’s presidency, some US aircraft and warships stopped in the Philippines on their way to patrols in the South China Sea. Lorenzana also said that President Duterte will probably not allow that to continue in order to “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions in the South China Sea. It’s unlikely.”
This change in policy comes on the heels of Duterte proposing a marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone be placed in the middle of the contested Scarborough Shoal last month. He told the media that he planned to sign an executive order declaring the zone and had discussed the matter with his ‘counterpart from China.’ Should Duterte issue the executive order it would reassert Philippine sovereignty over that area. A move like that will undoubtedly cause friction with China and puts Thursday’s comments by Lorenzana into a more coherent context perhaps. Removal of material support for US freedom of navigation exercises in exchange for China’s acceptance of the proposed Scarborough Shoal sanctuary.
Regardless of intentions and actions, it is clear that Duterte is playing a very shrewd game of geopolitical poker. His hand is nowhere near as strong as he would like. Much to his chagrin, the Philippines are not a major power in the South China Sea dispute. Manila has neither the political or military capital to influence the intentions and actions of the US and China in the region. Cozying up to China will bring short term benefits. However, China will act when it ready to act and in a manner that benefits its own national interests first and foremost. When that happens, Duterte will have minimal influence over the situation. His only viable option will be to tacitly approve of whatever plans Beijing has in mind. The same can be said for his stance with the United States.
To put it another way, Duterte is punching above his weight and if he is not wary, the US will not be there to administer a standing eight count if needed.
If the US-Philippines relationship were a marriage, this would be the day when the Philippines officially filed the divorce papers. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a step that few observers believed would come. In the middle of an official state visit to China, Duterte announced that he is ‘separating’ from the United States and embracing China as the Philippines newest and most powerful friend in the world. “Your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States … both in military, but also economics,’’ Duterte stated during a forum held in the Great Hall of the People. “I will be dependent on you.”
During Duterte’s visit agreements were signed for $13 billion in trade deals between China and the Philippines. Whether or not this pivot is genuine and sincere or an episode of bombastic grandstanding by Duterte remains to be seen. Washington will most likely adopt a wait-and-see attitude and declare that ‘all is well’ as the aftermath of today’s announcement plays out.
If Duterte’s words were genuine and his country is about to reject the United States and embrace China then Beijing has won a major diplomatic victory in the South China Sea and placed the United States in an unenviable position. Washington has little leverage and few options available as it comes to terms with what took place in Beijing. At the very least it severely undermines the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia which has faltered more than once already. On the other end of the spectrum, if Duterte’s announcement becomes reality the US-Philippine alliance might be over permanently.
We will discuss this topic more on Monday or Tuesday.