In his most provocative statement yet, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte urged China to stay away from a Philippine-controlled island in the South China Sea: “I am asking you, I will not plead or beg, but I’m just telling you, lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there. And if you lay a finger on them, it’s another story. I will tell my soldiers, prepare for a suicide mission.” 

Known for his pro-China overtures, Duterte’s warning came as quite a shock. Since assuming power in 2016, Duterte launched a radical shift on the Philippines’ South China Sea policy — downplaying a favorable 2016 arbitration ruling, threatening to scrap joint maritime patrols with the United States, and pursuing joint oil and gas exploration — that saw Manila cozying up with Beijing, amid overlapping territorial claims. Acting out of sheer pragmatism, Duterte aimed to strike a compromise with Beijing rather than embroil the Philippines in a war against China, which it cannot win.

Photo Source: Foreign Affairs

“Crimes against humanity” is about to be taken to a whole new level. Last March 15, former Philippine chief diplomat Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales took President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials before the International Criminal Court (ICC). In a communication sent to Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the two former Filipino officials claimed that the Chinese leaders committed crimes against humanity for damaging the marine environment as a result of Beijing’s artificial island-building in the West Philippine Sea. The two also cited interference in the conduct of fishing activities. Such actions allegedly endangered the livelihood and food security of the Philippines and of other nations rimming the semi-enclosed sea. The two requested ICC to initiate preliminary examination and subsequent investigation.

In the past, concern about getting entangled in a conflict over competing territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea restrained U.S. support for its oldest treaty ally in Asia. Now, a long overdue reassurance raises Philippine worries about getting involved in a brewing great power competition.

The waters of Southeast Asia stretch 6,500 kilometers across a dozen seas, many archipelagic waterways, and thousands of islands. Yet, the region’s narrow focus on major power tensions in areas such as the South China Sea has prevented a wider understanding of the roots of maritime instability in the region. As the main drivers of maritime insecurity remain unaddressed, organized political violence in the regional waters continues to endanger the transit of goods and people along these waterways. Stable Seas, a program of the One Earth Future Foundation, provides a unique approach that studies linkages between nine critical maritime issues to allow for a more holistic and multi-faceted understanding of Southeast Asia’s maritime security.

The South China Sea is recognized for the tensions that have materialized between the United States, China, and other emerging powers. While America persists with freedom of navigation operations, China continues to expand military infrastructure on contested territory.i Meanwhile, Southeast Asian claimant states are engaged in an intricate territorial dispute over highly contested waters filled with abundant fisheries stocks and rich oil and gas deposits. Through this prism of hard security concerns, the region’s maritime security is largely determined by the balance of military capabilities between regional powers and the ability to defuse unanticipated security crises. This focus has produced competitive geopolitics in a region that could greatly benefit instead from stronger multilateral cooperation around issues such as fisheries protection, marine conservation, and sustainable blue economy development.