The first quarter of 2018 saw growing military involvement among parties involved in the South China Sea territorial dispute. With increasing activities, there is also an increasing possibility of a military confrontation in the disputed waters. Despite these international developments, the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte continues to have a lenient approach to China and a casual mode in talking about its sovereign rights over its claims.

Growing Military Activity in the South China Sea heightens risks of confrontation

As 2018 opened, Philippine Defense Secretary Lorenzana warned that the Philippines would file a diplomatic protest against China should it be proven that it had militarized Fiery Cross Reef, a reef which China had turned into an artificial island. China denied this and said they are only conducting peaceful construction in their own territory and any defence equipment is not targeted to the Philippines.

Before January ended, the US sent the US Navy destroyer USS Hopper within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal. The US military said it was just conducting routine Freedom of Navigation Operation under international law. China however claimed the US warship violated its sovereignty by sailing close to the claimed feature.

In a move that seemed to be in response to continued US FONOPs, the Chinese Air Force announced through a statement that they have deployed advanced fighter jets over the South China Sea for a combat patrol mission. They did not specify where the patrol took place. It was the first time that the PLA Air Force had announced such a deployment.

Less than a week after, British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that HMS Sutherland, an anti-submarine frigate, will sail from Australia through the disputed South China Sea in March to assert freedom-of-navigation rights. The senior official also said Britain supports US FONOPs and that it is important for allies to assert their values in the disputed waters.

By early March, the US made it to the headlines again as the USS Carl Vinson made a historic visit to Vietnam – the first since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Lieutenant Commander Tim Hawkins said the port call was part of the Navy’s routine but analysts and observers say this was a clear shot at Beijing.

On March 23, tensions rose again as the USS Mustin, a US destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, which has been the subject of a dispute between China and the Philippines since China first occupied it in 1994. US held that the operation was designed under international law; on the other hand, China claimed that the US violated Chinese sovereignty and is harming the peace and stability in the region. China responded by announcing on March 25 that China’s air force has carried out another round of patrols in the South China Sea as well as drills in the Western Pacific. The statement did not specify the date and exact areas where the drills took place.

In addition, China conducted a massive exercise with its aircraft carrier off the coast of Hainan Island on March 27. Satellite images showed what appear to be at least 40 ships and submarines flanking the carrier Liaoning in what some analysts described as an unusually large display of the Chinese military’s growing naval power.

The US response to this came during a visit by Philippine generals and journalists on April 12 through a demonstration of more than two dozens F/A-18 Hornets off the deck of USS Theodore Roosevelt, ahead of port call in the Philippines.

Aside from the British navy’s show of support for US FONOPs, France also pledged to work together with India in early March to ensure freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. The space agencies of the two countries signed an accord to help them detect, identify and monitor sea vessels to ensure freedom of navigation.

The Japanese Navy, on the other hand, conducted a joint exercise with a US Navy strike group led by the super carrier USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea in mid-March. The Vinson strike group, which included two Aegis guided-missile destroyers, has been conducting the exercise with the Japanese helicopter carrier Ise which according to a US Navy statement “enhance maritime interoperability between longstanding allies.”

PH Government’s Casual and Lenient Approach to Chinese Activity on South China Sea

In January, when the US sent the USS Hopper within 12 nautical miles off of Scarborough Shoal angering China, the Philippines refused to intervene in the escalating tension. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, in a statement, said “We do not wish to be part of a US-China intramural. The United States can take care of its own interest.” However, in the same statement, he maintained the Philippines’ rights over Scarborough.

At a forum in Manila in February, Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said there is a shifting balance of power as US and China continue to vie for dominance in the South China Sea. He added that the Philippines should not be the ‘grass’ when the two ‘elephants’ fight and trample on it.

Avoiding confrontation with China, Duterte persists in being lenient toward China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea despite the latter’s continuing efforts to militarize its artificial islands and hold military drills in the disputed waters.

In January, a Chinese research organization was granted permission to conduct research in Benham Rise, within the Philippines’ eastern EEZ. The move was criticized by other government officials such as leftist party-list lawmakers, Rep. Gary Alejano, a staunch critique of Duterte’s policies in the South China Sea, and former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez, due to the possible consequences of the research. By early February, following a public outcry, Duterte ordered a ban on foreign research on Benham Rise. Walking back the President’s statement, Roque later clarified that foreigners can still apply for research on the Philippine Rise but face a more stringent process.

On February 5, the Philippine Daily Inquirer released photos showing that China was almost done with construction in seven occupied features in the West Philippine Sea. Most of the photos were taken between June and December 2017. But spokesperson Roque downplayed the photos, saying China’s militarization in the SCS is ‘no longer news’ and that the government trusts China’s words that it would not reclaim any more islands in the area.

On February 14, the whole nation was surprised to learn that China successfully named five undersea features in the Philippine Rise. Atty. Jay Batongbacal, a Philippine maritime expert, said the Duterte government did not object to the naming of the country’s waters when the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) approved the names submitted by the Chinese in 2016 and 2017. The Philippine government however iterated that it won’t recognize the Chinese names.

But Duterte also downplayed the naming of the undersea features saying that what China did was understandable since it discovered the features and followed international process, and that it should be no cause for alarm. On the other hand, he stressed Manila’s sovereign rights on the Philippine Rise, reiterated his trust of Xi Jinping’s promise not to build any structures on Scarborough Shoal, as well as joked about making the Philippines a province of China.

Analysis: The Philippines Should Keep its Eye on the Ball

Benham Rise is strategically important to Philippine security, marine resource stocks and the environment, and therefore, the Philippines is correct to be wary of Chinese activities there. Following the loss to China of Mischief Reef in 1995, Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and the de facto military control that China has managed to establish over its other features and surrounding waters, it is incumbent on the Duterte administration to avoid further erosion of the country’s sovereignty and sovereign rights.

However, there are certain points that Philippine stakeholders should consider in looking at Benham Rise. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China fully respects the Philippines maritime rights over Benham Rise and that it will not be a dispute between the two countries. However, Beijing also believes that the Philippines cannot claim the feature as part of its territory despite the 2012 ruling of the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approving the submission of the Philippines’ claim to Benham Rise. Moreover, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang also defended the sighting of a Chinese survey vessel in 2016 sailing east of Luzon for three months, saying it was a mere exercise of innocent passage.

The Philippines should objectively assess if and how its own interests are threatened by foreign research activities and take a clear, principled and consistent position reconciling international obligations with national interest imperatives, whether in relation to China or other users of the ocean. Conflicting statements by Philippine officials and knee-jerk reactions by some pundits only diminish credibility regarding our understanding of our rights and obligations under UNCLOS, as well as expose the shallowness of consensus in this country over what comprises the national interest in the maritime front.

Second, the real focus of our attention should remain with the militarization that is taking place in the WPS. Whatever else the President may choose to trivialize with his many off-the-cuff jokes on the South China Sea, and whether or not his declared trust in the word of China’s leader is justified, the escalation of foreign military presence and activity in our immediate maritime environs is no laughing matter nor one to be entrusted to the good will of any big power (least of all, China) to resolve.

This administration should keep its eye on the ball - and the crux right now is the militarization that is taking place in the South China Sea. China’s new island bases in the South China Sea may change the military balance in its favor, and the increased involvement of other non-regional states (especially their warships) is an expected - and perhaps, to some even, a welcome pushback against such a prospect.

The Philippines -and by extension of this argument, other claimant and stakeholder states in the South China Sea - can hide their heads in the sand and wish these problems away. We can say that we do not wish to be the grass that gets trampled, and thus consign ourselves to having only marginal impact on our own territorial and maritime jurisdiction issues while we let China, other big powers and extra-regional secondary powers do as they will.

Or — we can take a long, hard look at how our diplomacy and defense have failed, and continue to fail through successive administrations, bringing us to this trajectory in relation to our territorial and maritime challenges where we may well become less peaceful and less secure (and our region more unstable) than ever before. We can confront the hard facts, set the goals, define the roles that we ought to take, strategize, muster the resources, and act. Or we can simply make ourselves irrelevant to this issue for which we have already risked and suffered so much in the recent past.