*Author’s Note: Brief update today owing to a packed schedule. Apologies.*
Manila has called upon Beijing to withdraw the 200+ alleged Chinese fishing vessels it claims are violating its territorial waters. Since 7 March, 2023 there have been dozens of Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun reef. The Chinese claim the reason for this is their need to take shelter due to sea conditions. According to observations of the fleet, there is no fishing taking place and in the evening the ships run powerful lighting equipment. Whitsun reef is considered by the Philippines to be a component of its EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and has filed a diplomatic protest which will, in all likelihood, go nowhere.
So, here we are once more with China laying the foundation for yet another South China Sea challenge. In global politics, timing is everything. The fact that China has chosen to apply direct pressure a US ally in this manner, not very long after the Alaska meetings is telling. Beijing is ready to expand its confrontational attitude and actions. If China’s move at Whitsun is not countered and reversed, territorial seizures similar to what took place at Scarborough Shoal in 2012 will be coming in the near future.
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.
After a long wait the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has delivered its ruling on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The PCA has ruled that there is no legal basis to the claims and no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control over the South China Sea (SCS) waters or resources. From an international law vantage point, the ruling invalidates China’s nine-dash line, the geographic boundary line that Beijing affixed to its SCS claims back in 1949. The PCA announced that it has also found that China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines’ in the SCS by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration.
As expected, Beijing has labeled the ruling as ‘ill-founded’ and claimed that China will not be bound by it. “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way,” Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated.
The reaction from other nations in the region has been more measured. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called the decision ‘legally binding’ and urged all parties to comply. Vietnam is pleased with the PCA’s decision and has publicly said so, while also reasserting its own territorial claims. Manila has been strangely quiet, with the Philippine government welcoming the decision as ‘significant’ while also urging ‘all those concerned’ to ‘exercise restraint and sobriety.’ Many Filipinos believe that President Duterte may have received assurances of Chinese investment in exchange for a muted response from Manila.
The United States has reacted by urging all parties to avoid inflammatory and provocative statements or action to the ruling.
The predominant question at the moment is: How will China respond? Despite Beijing’s lack of interest in the PCA’s decision, the ruling is seen as humiliating and a loss of face. China lost on every point in the ruling and it will be difficult, if not impossible for China to do nothing. In September, the G20 summit meeting will be held in China. Does Beijing have the composure to wait until after the summit before taking action in the SCS?