“There is no ifs and buts. It is ours. But we have been acting along that legal truth and line. But we have to temper it with the times and the realities that we face today.” This statement in President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) last month reflects his policy toward Philippine claims in the South China Sea. That position has remained fairly consistent since coming to power in 2016. As he sets out to visit Beijing for the fifth time this month, maritime issues will once again be high on the agenda.
Conflict avoidance and protection of the country’s waters and marine resources constitute Duterte’s fundamental priorities in the South China Sea and he sees peaceful dialogue as the best way to achieve them. He has argued, “More and better results can be reached in the privacy of a conference room than in a squabble in public.” But high public mistrust of China and perceived weak handling of sea incidents have raised demands for transparency or oversight in the conduct of such talks. This should, however, be balanced by a respect for the very real sensitivities attached to diplomatic negotiations, especially over a decades-old territorial and maritime row.
While recognizing the value of the landmark 2016 arbitral ruling, Duterte seems mindful of its constraints and is aware of both the realities on the ground and the larger geopolitical context at play. In his 2016 SONA, he “strongly affirm[ed] and respect[ed]” the ruling, calling it “an important contribution to the ongoing efforts to pursue the peaceful resolution and management of our disputes.” He views the arbitral ruling as a legal tool to advance the country’s maritime interests but decided to play the card in the context of bilateral discussions where he thinks it will have more value.
Duterte has spent precious political capital to stand his ground on the issue. In his 2017 SONA, he said, “We have cultivated warmer relations with China through bilateral dialogues and other mechanisms, leading to easing of tensions between the two countries and improved negotiating environment on the West Philippine Sea.”
Part of his gamble has paid off, but challenges remain. He was able to secure renewed access for Filipino fishermen to Scarborough Shoal a few days after his first state visit to China in 2016. Reports of harassment subsided initially, though they have reemerged in recent years. He thinks that a proposed joint development plan for oil and gas at Reed Bank can lift the moratorium on upstream activities in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone by reducing political risk, thus enticing more capable investors to participate. But to avoid constitutional and legal hurdles, such an undertaking should conform to Philippine law, including a 60/40 ownership formula in the country’s favor.
Duterte’s relations with China and his handling of the South China Sea has been the subject of scrutiny and criticism. But he repudiated charges that economic largesse softened his stance on the issue. In his SONA last year, Duterte said, “Our improved relationship with China, however, does not mean that we will waiver in our commitment to defend our interests in the West Philippine Sea.”
Despite efforts to manage the disputes, recent events have brought the spotlight back to the South China Sea. The massing of Chinese ships near Thitu Island, the June 9 sinking of a Filipino fishing boat at Reed Bank, and the unannounced passage of Chinese warships in Philippine waters raised suspicions about China’s intent. It also puts into question China’s ability, if not desire, to rein in and discipline its fishers and maritime law enforcers.
The activities of Chinese vessels around Philippine-occupied features and the Philippines itself appear to be driven by national security concerns, which China sees as justifying entry into Philippine waters even in apparent violation of international and Philippine law. For instance, Beijing appears to be monitoring Manila’s construction work on Thitu in the same way that the Philippines and other claimants, as well as non-claimants, monitor China’s activities on features it occupies. And some Chinese passages through Philippine archipelagic waters and territorial seas could be aimed at tracking the movements of U.S. warships. Other Chinese activities, including those of survey vessels in the Philippine exclusive economic zone, are likely military rather than commercial or scientific in nature.
China’s interference in the maritime economic activities of other claimant states and the presence of its survey and naval vessels in the waters of neighboring coastal states only serve to heighten concerns over its behavior and intended end game in the contested sea. In turn, it pushes militarily-disadvantaged claimants to welcome involvement by major powers, notably freedom of navigation operations by the United States, as a counterbalance.
However, such demonstrations of high seas freedoms also generate worry of turning the sea into an arena of unbridled great power contestation with serious consequences for regional peace and stability. As it reacts to the presence of gray- and white-hulled vessels from outside powers, China cannot ignore the legitimate rights and interests of littoral states. Otherwise it will stir up tensions in the much-coveted sea.
The history of the South China Sea disputes reveals that wresting control of a feature requires confrontation or deception. Once lost, it is nearly impossible to regain. Once occupied, it is difficult to dislodge the occupier. This is the sea’s realpolitik. Each claimant is in possession of some features and from these positions project their jurisdictional capabilities.
For years, underinvestment by Manila in its defense posture in the Spratly Islands eroded its pioneering presence in this strategic maritime space. In contrast, others had bolstered and cemented theirs. This enabled other claimants, notably China and Vietnam, to better exploit the sea’s marine resources and guard their claimed waters. After losing Southwest Cay to Vietnam in 1975, Mischief Reef to China in 1995, and control over Scarborough Shoal to China in 2012, the country cannot afford to lose another feature. Maintaining its foothold in the Spratlys and access to Scarborough Shoal, harnessing the sea’s marine resources, and protecting its fishers and offshore energy service contractors are paramount.
While international law matters, Duterte is not putting all his eggs in that basket. Rhetoric aside, construction works on Thitu, continued maritime capacity-building with support from partners, expanding naval and coast guard diplomacy, participation in regional confidence-building measures, and engagement with China in both bilateral and regional dialogues display a diversified toolkit.
The recent “first reading” of the single draft negotiating text of the Code of Conduct shows progress in regional efforts to manage the disputes. The Philippines is playing no small role in this effort as ASEAN-China country coordinator. Duterte, in fact, raised the urgency of concluding the code of conduct at the soonest possible time. Likewise, the adoption of a Guidelines for Maritime Interaction in the last ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok builds on positive momentum toward dispute management and preventive diplomacy in the last three years. Though China is not party to those guidelines, they provide standards that ASEAN could promote in discussions with Beijing.
Indeed, while criticized for advertising his country’s weakness and overplaying the risk of war to stress his point, Duterte’s actions in the South China Sea seem far from capitulation.
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences at Ateneo de Manila University and Contributing Editor (Reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal. His research interests include Southeast Asia in great power interaction, maritime and energy security, and China’s Belt and Road initiative. This article was first published by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.