The Philippines' headache over China
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The Philippines' headache over China

Protesters hold placards during a rally last month at the Chinese consulate in Metro Manila to protest China's artificial island-building at disputed islands, reefs and shoals off the Philippines. (AP file photo)
Protesters hold placards during a rally last month at the Chinese consulate in Metro Manila to protest China's artificial island-building at disputed islands, reefs and shoals off the Philippines. (AP file photo)

When history is written one day of how a country called the Philippines dealt with China, would it make for a legend about how it smartly navigated geopolitical waters to assert its territorial and economic rights -- or a case study in how to bend over backwards and cede these to its giant neighbour to the north?

One year after it made history by winning against China at The Hague-based arbitration tribunal -- which found its construction activities in the South China Sea illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea -- the Philippines' victory has remained mostly on paper.

A consensus remains elusive on how the country of more than 102 million people wants to respond to China's behaviour in what it calls the West Philippine Sea -- even as Manila has already lost much control and access there.

The South China Sea has become a laboratory for viewing China's behaviour as a global player, and how less powerful states handle this in terms of diplomacy and strategy.

The July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration found without legal basis China's Nine-Dash Line claim over most of the South China Sea, and put in place principles that maritime states can use to delineate their exclusive economic zones, among others. China refused to recognise the ruling.

"This (China's expansion in the South China Sea) is the greatest external threat to the Philippines since World War II" is how Antonio Carpio, a Supreme Court justice, described the situation at a July 12 forum in Manila. "China's policy is to control the South China Sea without firing a single shot."

But a Philippine statement on the ruling's anniversary maintained that its friendlier China policy has been bringing home the bacon. While the ruling came during Mr Duterte's administration, the case was filed by the previous government in 2013.

"The Duterte administration reaffirms its unwavering commitment to protect our country's territorial claims and maritime entitlements, but believes that the ongoing territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea should further be resolved in a manner consistent with the spirit of good neighbourly relations," it said.

Repeatedly, President Rodrigo Duterte has said that the Philippines is "setting aside" the ruling, and will take it up with China at the right time. In April, he said there was no point in pressing China to respect it.

"You must be dreaming," he told reporters.

The Philippines' passivity has undercut hopes for an international alliance if it had started a campaign to press China to respect the rule of law in venues like the United Nations. It also weakens the potency of a code of conduct in the South China Sea that Asean aims to put in place with China.

Asean and China agreed to have this code, aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea, 15 years ago. But it is still struggling to produce a framework for this code -- a list of bullet points on what topics it would contain -- this year, with the Philippines as chair of Asean on its 50th year.

"It should be clear that as we talk about cooperation either through the code of conduct or other instruments or bilateral mechanisms, that cooperation seems to be taking place under conditions of what one could term submission, or at the very least, deference to power," said Jay Batongbacal, head of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

At this rate, the Philippines' credibility in Asean discussions on the South China Sea may soon sink to as low as that of Cambodia. In 2012, Asean ministers failed to produce a joint statement after Cambodia, then Asean chair, blocked references to the South China Sea.

Already, the South China Sea's character has changed. When Asean began discussing it some two decades ago, it was described as uninhabited reefs, islets and atolls.

Today, it bears air and naval facilities, with runways and military structures that China has built.

Chinese presence closer to Philippine territory has become a regular feature, including by vessels sighted just 40 kilometres from certain provinces. Chinese coast guard vessels drive local fishers away, and maritime research vessels have been spotted as well, the Philippine military had said.

China needs to complete just one more air and naval base in Scarborough Shoal, in addition to its bases in Woody Island and the Spratlys, to have naval and anti-aircraft missile coverage of the entire South China Sea, said Mr Carpio.

The Philippines' attempt to define its national interest is not aided by the lack of public awareness of the concrete links between the South China Sea challenge -- and bread-and-butter ones like growth, energy needs and food security.

As Chinese control grew in the disputed waters, the Philippines has stopped exploring for petroleum there. Mr Carpio said this leaves the country without an alternative after its crucial Malampaya field runs out of gas in less than 10 years.

Discussions often portray the Philippines' assertion as meaning war with China.

This adds to the fear factor, and may be helping sustain acceptance of Mr Duterte's China policy amid his popularity.

The Duterte government packages cooperation with China within an "independent foreign policy", away from the United States' ambit. While there is a constituency that would favour some distance from the US, disquiet remains about China.

As one Facebook user commented: "#Chexit pls."

But perceptions of China appear to be improving. In July, the US-based Pew Research Centre released poll results showing China is viewed favourably by 55% of Filipinos and unfavourably by 40%.

The Manila-based Social Weather Stations has tracked an improvement in Filipino views of China from late 2016, months after the Duterte government came to power. In December 2016, China's trust rating climbed to a "neutral" +9 from -33 in 2014 -- its best perceptions rating in four years.

"I think this issue, if thrown to the public and if the public demands action from the president, the president will respond. Right now, there is no demand yet; it's just coming from a small group like this," said Mr Carpio. "The important thing is to inform the public so the public will demand from the President action on this."

So what can be done if China refuses to play by the rules? "The key is to make the cost of China's not complying with the norm high enough so they will be prevented from any further action in that direction," said Koichi Ai of the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

Few believe that Asean's code of conduct will change realities on the ground. By the time it is completed, so might China's programme to gain effective control of most of the South China Sea, Filipino experts worry. Instead of being a historic legacy, could the arbitral ruling sink as a lost opportunity in the region's waters of tension?

Johanna Son, a Filipino journalist who has followed Southeast Asian affairs for over two decades, is editor and founder of the Reporting Asean media programme, in Bangkok.

Johanna Son

Founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series

Johanna Son is founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series.


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