In late 2022 and early 2023, Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. visited China, creating modest high points in diplomacy as they promoted neighborly relations and stability in the South China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines are among the key states in the South China Sea dispute. The 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 2021 signified continuity of leadership, and there have been frequent diplomatic interactions between China and Vietnam in recent years. Those have contributedd to stable relations an a de-escalation of tensions over disputed waters.
Since the former president, Rodrigo Duterte, managed maritime tensions throughout his tenure, the question raised now is whether there will be any change in South China Sea policy under the administration of Marcos, who has relationships with both China and the United States.
Marcos is the first foreign head of state to visit China in 2023. In the joint statement released by China and the Philippines on Jan. 5, upholding peace and stability in the South China Sea remains pivotal in the two sides’ maritime policies. Article 13 of the joint statement said the two leaders had an in-depth and candid exchange of views on the situation in the South China Sea. They emphasized that maritime issues do not represent the sum-total of relations between the two states and agreed to appropriately manage differences through peaceful means.
Both sides reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace and stability in the region and the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, and they reached consensus on the peaceful resolution of disputes on the basis of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), the United Nations Charter and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
This means that China and the Philippines have expressed their strategic intent and determination to maintain stability in the South China Sea, which is conducive to peace in Asia-Pacific region more broadly. There is an intimate link between a peaceful South China Sea and a stable Asia-Pacific, where China’s relationship with the Philippines and Vietnam is crucial. In 2010, the direct intervention of the U.S. administration with respect to the South China Sea issue escalated tensions and complicated matter, with occasional outbreaks of friction and crisis.
The dispute boiled over in 2013 when the Philippines, under the administration of former President Corazon Aquino, filed a South China Sea Arbitration suit, a political farce staged under a legal pretext. But changing tides in the 2016-22 period can be seen between China and the Philippines, as Duterte committed himself to shaping valuable stability.
During the three-year pandemic period of 2020-22, there was no significant change in the situation, despite the tightening alliance network under America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, including the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad), the AUKUS alliance and the “Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness.” This laid the foundation for China to deal with U.S. containment efforts, play a constructive role in regional hotspot issues and promote peaceful development in the Asia-Pacific. Given this, the relatively stable China-Philippines and China-Vietnam relationships regarding the maritime dispute have been vital in stabilizing the situation and avoiding an escalation of tensions between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia.
There is a seemingly “anomalous” phenomenon, however. Why did the situation in the South China Sea remain stable for a long period of time in the context of the deterioration of the strategic relationship between China and the U.S., the increasing significance of Southeast Asia in the China-U.S. strategic game and the eagerness of the U.S. to stir up trouble in the South China Sea?
From a strategic perspective, China faces a generally deteriorating Indo-Pacific environment. Both Japan and South Korea steadily follow the U.S. strategy lead. Strategic coordination has developed between the U.S. and the major European powers. India has taken advantage of China’s dilemma and has shown an aggressive attitude toward China in its economic and security strategy. Some central Asian states are adjusting their strategy toward China in light of political changes in Kazakhstan and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
At the same time, ASEAN states interpret neutrality as not taking a side and keeping good relations with both China and the U.S. ASEAN states and China, as heavy trading partners, have formed a zone of peace and development with an aggregate population as big as 2 billion, and jointly promoted the RCEP, the world’s largest FTA, to come into effect.
Regarding the South China Sea dispute, although all claimant states conduct routine operations in safeguarding rights, all leaders maintain strategic clarity, strategic restraint and strategic determination, which results in a “non-conflict, non-confrontation” situation in regional relations. This demonstrates the experience and tactics of all sides in the strategic management of the situation in the South China Sea. In this aspect, Duterte can be seen as model for Marcos.
Like waves in the South China Sea, the situation fluctuates. Disputes surface from time to time. But the journey of 2023 has just begun. Tactics are still required to diffuse disputes and maintain stability.
First, it’s important to maintain good bilateral communication and coordination between China and the Philippines, and between China and Vietnam. Regardless of the situation, the joint statements should be implemented firmly with a steady dose of cooperation in the South China Sea.
Second, China and ASEAN should come to a speedy conclusion in negotiations on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) and make it a cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific.
Third, an inclusive China-U.S.-ASEAN regional order should be created under the regional architecture of ASEAN, with de-escalation of tensions between China and the U.S. and a reduction of foreign pressure on states like the Philippines.
All in all, there is an intimate linkage between a peaceful South China Sea and a stable Asia-Pacific region. Healthy China-Philippines relations are crucial in maintaining stability.