During the briefing given by the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) to members of Congress last May 30, 2018, senior government officials led by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Allan Peter Cayetano and Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana shed more light on the evolving Philippine foreign policy. The hearing revealed how inadequate the country’s diplomatic resources are in terms of dealing with China (i.e. no dedicated China desk, understaffed Asia-Pacific desk), as well as the challenges and opportunities posed by China’s rise for the Philippines. The need to develop a think-tank to focus on the myriad WPS issues was also raised to provide government with research-based policy recommendations. I focus my analysis on what I consider as the three main takeaways from the two-and-a-half-hour public hearing, namely: 1) accomplishments made by government in WPS since assuming office in 2016; 2) preference for a quiet approach in asserting Philippine position and; 3) appreciation of the broader geopolitical context.
Gains and strides
In terms of progress made, government outlined four key areas – fisheries, marine environment and ecology, safety of life at sea and offshore energy joint development. Secretary Cayetano pointed out a tentative fishing agreement, that -- though not perfect -- allowed Filipino fishermen to re-access their traditional fishing ground in Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) which had been closed to them since the 2012 standoff. He even claimed that Philippines co-controls the feature. The former Senator turned Foreign Secretary also said that both sides are discussing the joint implementation of measures to preserve spawning grounds and protect endangered marine species with the Chinese side promising that the full force of Chinese law will be applied to illegal Chinese poachers who will be apprehended. Furthermore, he pointed out that both sides are establishing coordination mechanisms to provide safe shelter during inclement weather for Filipino ships. Finally, Cayetano also said that Manila and Beijing are working hard to develop a framework to facilitate joint development in WPS that does not violate the country’s Constitution and does not give up the country’s territorial and sovereign rights while gaining the benefits. He pointed out that government is looking at the Malampaya template, which provides for a 60-40 revenue sharing in favor of the country, if not better.
Progress on these low-hanging fruits suggest some early harvest in bilateral negotiations. Although reports of harassment persist, the return to Bajo de Masinloc immediately brought back lost livelihood to artisanal and small-scale commercial fishermen of northwestern Luzon. The tentative fishery agreement and discussions on marine ecology may allow both governments to apply their respective fishing and marine environment protection laws. It may also facilitate joint marine research for the replenishment of fish stocks and ecological preservation. This may help avoid the scenario of having one country capitalizing on the environment card by unilaterally imposing its domestic resource laws on the contested feature and thus gaining legitimacy while asserting jurisdiction. That the 2016 arbitral ruling affirmed the traditional fishing rights of both Philippines and China in the shoal creates openings for cooperation. These positive developments bode well for fishermen whose livelihood has long suffered from getting entangled in sovereign jurisdictional disputes.
However, some reported gains do not come without challenges. The claim of co-control may be challenged by critics who argue that there is no Philippine counterpart maritime law enforcement vessel present inside the lagoon or co-guarding the entrance to the lagoon. Coordination to allow safe refuge inside the lagoon for Filipino fishermen in times of bad weather is welcome but may come with a tacit recognition of Chinese control. Critics may claim that such is a retreat from a (fishing) rights regime to a permission regime, with the power to grant such permit exercised by China. The issue of trading-off positioning for short-term gains can thus be raised.
Asserting rights without shouting
The briefing provided government an opportunity to answer criticisms and allegations about the country’s WPS policy. Contrary to what critics claim, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs stated that government has been taking all necessary actions, including making diplomatic protests, to pursue the country’s legitimate and rightful position in the WPS. In response to charges that government is failing in asserting the landmark 2016 arbitral ruling, he said that the matter had been already raised twice in the course of bilateral talks. He also added that inclusiveness and openness to other ideas are maintained in the crafting of the country’s evolving foreign policy. In fact, he said that NTF-WPS retained people from the previous administration, including those that are not career officers, and continue to engage retired officials, including those who continue to cling on the Aquino strategy of internationalizing the dispute. Finally, in response to demands for transparency, he pointed out that some negotiations are kept under wraps as diplomacy requires.
The Duterte administration made its policy preference for dialogue clear in its handling of the WPS disputes. This stands in stark contrast from the previous administration’s bias for third-party settlement and use of every available international opportunity to call out China for its claims and actions Several factors may be driving this inclination for direct talks between sovereign equals. This may include recognition of the lack of effective enforcement of third party settlement means, uncertain support of allies and partners, and desire to deliver immediate tangible benefits given short presidential term horizons. At any rate, any or the confluence of these possible rationales paved the way for the establishment of a Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) with China in 2017. Without being noisy and though far from ideal, government has been taking steps to manage the disputes and push for the attainment of the country’s national interests (e.g. resource access, improvements in Philippine facilities in the Kalayaan), while, at the same time reassuring neighbors and allies. Efforts to gradually implement parts of the award can also be seen in the resumption of Filipino fishing in Bajo de Masinloc and cessation of Chinese interference on the same and continuing negotiations for an offshore hydrocarbons joint development. Moreover, while critics easily portray the government’s approach as amounting to acquiescence or appeasement to China, certain actions present a different picture. Although President Duterte has yet to set foot in the Kalayaan Islands in WPS, he has nonetheless sent his Defense Secretary Lorenzana to lead a high-level defense delegation to visit Pag-Asa Island last May 2017. The visit pushed through despite Chinese manifestations. It was the highest official visit in the Philippine-held features in years. Other claimants in fact have not been as bold in sending such high-level visits in the contested sea.
Similarly, when the issue of Chinese marine research and naming of underwater features in Benham Rise was made public, government responded robustly. It restricted foreign marine research in the underwater plateau, raise the naming issue in the second BCM meeting, proposed to register objection over the naming before the International Hydrographic Organization and, most importantly, refused to accept the Chinese names, vowing to use Filipino names instead. A team of officials and marine scientists was also sent to visit and study the Rise. Philippines and China were also able to reach an agreement that any future marine research in the area should have the former’s consent. Beijing also recognized Manila’s sovereign rights over the extended continental shelf awarded to the country in 2012. A year before, government had already renamed it as the Philippine Rise. Relevant agencies were sent to conduct resource mapping and maritime patrols were increased. Hence, the administration’s subtle approach is making some headway without unnecessarily inviting too much attention. As Cayetano pointed out, it does not mean that because we are silent and low-key, we are not doing anything. On the contrary, he argued that much is being done.
Appreciation of geopolitics
Government demonstrated an interesting appreciation of the wider geopolitical environment where WPS disputes is situated. The administration seem not oblivious to the growing great power rivalry manifesting in WPS and reflected in key US policy documents such as the 2017 National Security Strategy. Variance in the interests of these powers and that of other claimants and user states of the strategic and vital waterway is also evident. As major trading nations dependent on the sea for much of their trade, US, China and other regional countries such as Japan, Korea and ASEAN member-states, have a shared concern in keeping freedom of commercial navigation. Non-claimant US, for instance, has a strong interest in freedom of navigation and overflight, while remaining neutral to territorial and maritime disputes. This is despite a longstanding Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) alliance with the Philippines dating back to 1951 and repeated manifestations by Manila for a less ambiguous US position in the treaty’s coverage and its activation. Cayetano argued that invoking the MDT in defense of Philippine interests in WPS is not as easy as critics claim since the same may require US Congressional approval.
Moreover, while the spotlight was put on China because of its massive island-building undertakings in 2014, other claimants had also been busy expanding their landholdings in recent years. In fact, Cayetano lamented that the Philippines seems to be the only one really observing the 2002 Declaration of Code of Conduct of Parties in the contentious sea which prohibits occupation of hitherto unoccupied features and restrains actions which may escalate tensions.
Cayetano added that while Philippines understands the security concerns of neighbors and allies, it opposes all forms of militarization, defensive or otherwise. Thus, while expressing concerns over Chinese deployment of military aircraft and weapons systems in the Paracels, it does recognize China’s longstanding concern over US military presence in the region, which received a fresh boost under former President Obama’s Asia pivot. Earlier US intelligence gathering activities in China’s maritime periphery, such as the 2001 EP-3 Orion and 2009 USNS Impeccable incidents which took place in waters and airspace closer to Hainan, resulted to heated diplomatic rows between the two rivals. Apparently, the Philippine government recognizes Sino-American dissonance on whether international law permits military activities in a coastal state’s exclusive economic zone, with US arguing it does (expanded interpretation) and China maintaining that it does not (restrictive interpretation). Thus, taking part in US freedom of (military) navigation operations in WPS inadvertently endorses the American view. As China continues to rise, it will show less tolerance for what it considers as threatening military activities by peer competitors in its near seas. Hence, allowing the use of Philippine bases as launching pads for US military operations in WPS carries the risk of being a potential target for Chinese retaliation, a risk too high considering increasing economic interdependence and proximity. This avoidance of entanglement in major power rivalry is thus a recurring theme in the Philippine desire for an independent foreign policy.
What constitutes defensive or offensive is also in contention. Cayetano cited the example of the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) deployed by US in South Korea. US considers it as defensive to ward off missile threats from North Korea. But China and Russia do not share this view, hence they opposed its installation arguing that they posed threats to their respective national security. Furthermore, if ensuring readiness can be considered as militarization, then military exercises, such as the annual PH-US Balikatan exercises, which are also directed at certain objects, can be considered as militarization in the same vein as PLA’s military exercises in the South China Sea (SCS) are. The problem with this accusation of militarization, according to Cayetano, is that it triggers a chicken-and-egg debate – who took the first step and who is responding to who.
Nevertheless, while the government presently does not feel threatened with the presence of Chinese weapons systems in the same manner as it does not feel threatened by its treaty ally US’ military presence in the region, there is no denying that recent military developments are tipping the scales in Beijing’s favor in the tightly contested semi-enclosed sea. China’s Great Wall of Sand undoubtedly extends Beijing’s defense perimeter and capacity to project power in the SCS and beyond. But while there is gradual acceptance of China’s expanding role in regional security as talks of a first-ever joint ASEAN-China maritime exercises suggest, leadership changes (e.g. through periodic elections) may not necessarily guarantee policy continuity. For now, improved bilateral relations give the government less reason to worry about being the target of Chinese military activities in WPS. But this may change when a less-friendly administration comes to power in 2022. By that time, only history can judge whether Duterte’s foreign policy worked to the country’s advantage or not. In the meantime, emphasis on dispute management and the cultivation of other aspects of comprehensive relations with China continue.
*Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress, Lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Social Sciences and Contributing Editor (Reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal