[South China Sea] Should the Philippines avoid playing the lead role amid rising tensions in SCS?

Chinese academic Lin Qi says following the arbitral tribunal ruling in 2016, which, inter alia, said that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’”, the Philippines has gone on to stake a firmer claim in the South China Sea such as by undertaking upgrading works on certain islands it inhabits and proposing draft amendments to the “national territory” article of its constitution. However, in many of its endeavours, it relies on the US and will continue to work closely with them amid rising tensions in the region.
This handout photo received on 9 June 2020 from the Department National Defense Philippines (DND), shows Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana (centre) along with military officials cutting a ribbon during the inauguration ceremony of the newly constructed beach-ramp at Philippine-held Pag-asa Island also known as Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelagos. (Handout/Department National Defense Philippines (DND)/AFP)
This handout photo received on 9 June 2020 from the Department National Defense Philippines (DND), shows Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana (centre) along with military officials cutting a ribbon during the inauguration ceremony of the newly constructed beach-ramp at Philippine-held Pag-asa Island also known as Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelagos. (Handout/Department National Defense Philippines (DND)/AFP)

In the past year or so, tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) seem to be flaring up again as maritime disputes occur more frequently.

The respective claimants are using the window before the Code of Conduct in the SCS is signed to accelerate their unilateral actions so as to consolidate and expand their respective vested interests in the SCS. 

First up were the actions taken in connection to oil and gas deposits in the SCS, with Vietnam engaging in exploration and development activities at Vanguard Bank once more, and Malaysia looking for oil and gas near the Luconia Shoals. Then, fishery altercations occurred again as Indonesia took a tough and high-profile stance against Chinese fishing activities in China’s traditional fishing grounds in the southwest. The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) also found many Vietnamese fishing vessels fishing illegally in the waters near Hainan. Separately, SCS legal battles are intensifying once more as Malaysia unilaterally submitted its application for “the outer limits of its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles”, and Vietnam intends to follow in the footsteps of the Philippines by unilaterally initiating mandatory arbitration for its SCS disputes (with China). 

The tacit understanding for all parties involved to not take any action that would complicate, escalate and internationalise matters while the Code of Conduct in the SCS is being negotiated has been repudiated. The respective claimants are using the window before the Code of Conduct in the SCS is signed to accelerate their unilateral actions so as to consolidate and expand their respective vested interests in the SCS. 

Back in 2013, the Philippines unilaterally suggested the usage of arbitration to resolve its disputes with China in the SCS, making it the “perpetrator” in the previous round of rising tensions in the region. What sort of role will the Philippines play this time round?

How the Philippines will play its cards

Firstly, the Philippines will not want to be left behind, so it has emulated the actions of some claimants by carrying out construction work on islands and reefs to consolidate and expand its vested interests in the SCS.

This handout photo received on 9 June 2020 from the Department National Defense Philippines (DND), shows an aerial shot of the newly constructed beach ramp at Philippine-held Pag-asa Island also known as Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelagos during a visit of Philippine Secretary of national Defense Delfin Lorenzana. (Handout/Department National Defense Philippines (DND)/AFP)
This handout photo received on 9 June 2020 from the Department National Defense Philippines (DND), shows an aerial shot of the newly constructed beach ramp at Philippine-held Pag-asa Island also known as Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelagos during a visit of Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana. (Handout/Department National Defense Philippines (DND)/AFP) 

With an area of 0.33 square kilometres, Thitu Island (or Pag-asa Island to Filipinos) is only second to Taiping Island in size amongst the naturally-occurring Spratly Islands. It houses a basic airstrip, a communications tower, barracks and troops. There is also a small migrant settlement of around 300 Filipinos. Additionally, there are some 20 buildings, including a community centre, medical clinic, town hall and school. 

The airstrip on Thitu Island had fallen into disrepair, with many potholes that endangered aircrafts during both take-offs and landings. In 2013, the Philippine government announced that it would be upgrading both the airstrip and military installations on the island. Subsequently, it decided to halt such work to bolster its chances of winning the SCS arbitration.

In August 2016, the Philippines restarted its airport upgrading and makeover, with the beach ramp project scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018. On 9 June 2020, after a delay of a year and a half, the beach ramp on Thitu Island was finally completed and handed over to the Philippine government. As the command centre of the Philippines’ encroachment into the Spratly Islands, Thitu Island enjoys a significant status, and the beach ramp is of paramount importance to its subsequent expansion and makeover. 

The Philippine government’s push to amend the country’s constitution points to Thitu Island gaining greater strategic significance. Under the “National Territory” article in the draft amendment, it was emphasised that the “verdict of the international court or arbitral tribunal” gave the Philippines territorial sovereignty. In other words, the Philippines can use the SCS arbitral award to claim territorial sovereignty, and the corresponding marine rights and interests to the region. From this perspective, as the command centre of Philippines’ encroachment into the Spratly Islands, Thitu Island’s strategic significance in the country’s sovereignty claim will become more pronounced, and both military and civilian facilities on the island need to be further enhanced.

Yet, on such a special occasion, the Philippines chose to send its defence secretary to attend a handover ceremony on a disputed island.

With the USS-Wasp in the background, US Marines ride an amphibious assault vehicle during the amphibious landing exercises of the US-Philippines war games promoting bilateral ties at a military camp in Zambales province, Philippines, on 11 April 2019. (Eloisa Lopez/File Photo/Reuters)
With the USS-Wasp in the background, US Marines ride an amphibious assault vehicle during the amphibious landing exercises of the US-Philippines war games promoting bilateral ties at a military camp in Zambales province, Philippines, on 11 April 2019. (Eloisa Lopez/File Photo/Reuters) 

Next, the Philippines is unable to cope with this round of rising tensions in the SCS on its own, so military cooperation with the US, and its status as an American ally, are still vital. 

On 9 June, the Philippine Secretary of National Defence, Delfin Lorenzana, personally led a group of top military brass onto Thitu Island to preside over the handover ceremony of the beach ramp. On the same day, President Xi Jinping and President Rodrigo Duterte exchanged congratulatory messages for the 45th anniversary of bilateral relations over the phone. Yet, on such a special occasion, the Philippines chose to send its defence secretary to attend a handover ceremony on a disputed island. This is perhaps indicative of the Philippine military’s desire for the country to distance itself from China and maintain close ties with the US.

In recent years, the US has provided some US$1.3 billion in military aid to the Philippines, which has helped the country greatly in training its military personnel and combatting domestic terrorism etc. 

On a similar note, less than four months after the Philippines announced its intention to abrogate its 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, its Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Teodoro Locsin Jr., announced to the media that President Duterte had ordered the suspension of the abrogation from 1 June. The initial move to abrogate was met with much opposition in the Philippines as the years of military aid had cultivated pro-American elements and opposing forces that still favoured military cooperation between both countries. To maintain political stability, Duterte probably had no choice but to placate these political groups. 

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many issues with the Philippine government and its military, and the country does not have much spare capacity to cope with the current round of rising tensions in the SCS. In recent years, the US has provided some US$1.3 billion in military aid to the Philippines, which has helped the country greatly in training its military personnel and combatting domestic terrorism etc. 

A busy day on the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea on 10 April 2018. (Karen Lema/File Photo/Reuters)
A busy day on the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea on 10 April 2018. (Karen Lema/File Photo/Reuters)

The Philippines has a long history of military cooperation with the US and it is still necessary for it to continue doing so under the new circumstances. After all, being a US ally is an important amulet. Let us not forget that, the Secretary of State of the US, Mike Pompeo, once made it clear that any military attack on the Philippines in the SCS would trigger mutual defence obligations provided for by the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US. 

It would be wise for the Philippines to be more low-key and pragmatic, and to avoid playing too big a part in this new round of rising tensions in the SCS. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has not only devastated the global economy, but also caused important changes to regional and international politics, and things seem to be heating up again in the SCS. Through infrastructure development and maintaining its military cooperation with the US, the Philippines is consolidating and expanding its vested interests in the SCS. 

Depending on China economically and on the US for security is a balancing act that the Philippines is unable to do away with for now. It would be wise for the Philippines to be more low-key and pragmatic, and to avoid playing too big a part in this new round of rising tensions in the SCS. 

Editor’s note:

In recent weeks, the US and China have upped the ante in the SCS dispute. China conducted military drills in the waters near the Paracel islands (what it calls Xisha Islands) saying it was well within its rights to do so. A US Department of Defense statement said: "Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the SCS is counterproductive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability. The PRC’s actions will further destabilise the situation in the SCS. Such exercises also violate PRC commitments under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”

Vietnam, a claimant state in the SCS dispute, also reacted with consternation. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang, said, “The drill carried out by China around the Paracel Islands violated Viet Nam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, contravenes the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), complicates the situation and is not conducive to current negotiation between China and ASEAN on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) as well as the maintenance of peace, stability and cooperation in the South China Sea.” 

Vietnam is also the current chair of ASEAN. In the recent ASEAN Summit Chairman’s Statement on 26 June, the ASEAN states reaffirmed that “the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones, and the 1982 UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”.

...the US carrier strike force came calling on its own, giving the Chinese forces just the target training practice they were looking for. - Military affairs academic Wang Yunfei

In a video statement, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. said: “These exercises are taking place in waters off Xisha Islands — the Paracels — over which Vietnam claims sovereignty. Should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory, then China is forewarned that it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate.” 

This US Navy photo released on 7 July 2020 shows aircraft from Carrier Air Wings (CVW) 5 and 17 as they fly in formation over the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force, the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz (CVN 68) (right), and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) as their carrier strike groups are conducting dual carrier operations in the Indo-Pacific as the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force on 6 July 2020. (Keenan Daniels/US Navy/AFP)
This US Navy photo released on 7 July 2020 shows aircraft from Carrier Air Wings (CVW) 5 and 17 as they fly in formation over the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force, the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz (CVN 68) (right), and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) as their carrier strike groups are conducting dual carrier operations in the Indo-Pacific as the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force on 6 July 2020. (Keenan Daniels/US Navy/AFP)

At around the same time, the US conducted a fresh round of Navy exercises on 4 July involving two aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan. A statement from the US Navy said: “The Nimitz Carrier Strike Force celebrated Independence Day with unmatched sea power while deployed to the SCS conducting dual carrier operations and exercises in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has deemed this as a provocation, saying on 6 July that it is “completely out of ulterior motives” that the US “flexes its muscles by purposely sending powerful military force to the relevant waters”. He went on to say that the US seeks to “drive a wedge between regional countries, promote militarisation of the SCS and undermine peace and stability in the region”.

Military affairs academic Wang Yunfei said in an essay in Toutiao (《今日头条》) that the US carrier strike force came calling on its own, giving the Chinese forces just the target training practice they were looking for. In addition, in August, the Chinese Navy may embark on another exercise in the SCS. 

Meanwhile, China has also announced in recent days that its reserve military forces will now be under the charge of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the Central Military Commission. It is believed that this move is to allow the PLA to be more agile in tackling potential large-scale conflicts that may arise in various hotspots. 

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. said in a statement on 12 July, the anniversary of the arbitral tribunal ruling: "The Tribunal ruled that certain actions within the Philippines’ EEZ violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and were thus unlawful; that large-scale reclamation and construction of artificial islands caused severe environmental harm in violation of international conventions; that the large-scale harvesting of endangered marine species damaged the marine ecosystem; and that actions taken since the commencement of the arbitration had aggravated the disputes."

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