Coming to power barely two weeks after an arbitration tribunal ruled on the South China Sea, the enigmatic Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was credited for soothing tensions amid searing passions at that time. Since then, his administration employed a mix of engagement and pushback in dealing with China - growing economic ties, managing sea incidents, and defending the country’s position in choppy waters. The April 3rd visit and meeting of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tunxi, Anhui, and the April 8th telesummit between top leaders Duterte and Xi Jinping were venues to take stock of bilateral relations in the last six years. With elections to be held on May 9th and presidential aspirants weighing in on the sea row and relations with China, several lessons can be distilled.
Insulating disputes from overall relations
First is the wisdom of managing disputes so that they do not affect overall relations. In reference to the intractable sea spat, the late Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said that “it is important to manage the problems well and prevent them from becoming a crisis that may result in confrontation.” His counterpart, China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, argued that it is normal for neighbors “to have differences as neighbors,” saying that “what matters is how we handle them properly.” National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Fu Ying said that “whenever the two sides can properly handle and manage the differences, cooperation would proceed without disruption.” However, the former Chinese top envoy to the Southeast Asian country also cautioned that “when disputes are allowed to escalate or even get out of control, the overall bilateral relations would suffer.” She identified the South China Sea as the most difficult debacle saying, “it’s sensitive and complicated, and there is no easy solution.” Former Philippine President and former Speaker of the House of Congress Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stressed that relations should not be uni-dimensional centered only on the territorial dispute and instead be multifaceted.
There is no question that the South China Sea disputes will continue to challenge ties among claimants and major naval powers. The increasing wherewithal of disputants, notably China, and an escalating U.S.-China rivalry raise the stakes for keeping the peace in the simmering hotspot. The 2016 arbitration award was a contribution to resolving the intractable issue, but Beijing’s opposition to it and its non-binding nature for third parties present serious hurdles.
Focus on dispute management and practical cooperation
The dilemma with the 2016 ruling may have prompted Duterte to put more emphasis on dispute management and functional cooperation. This said, he continues to assert the arbitral award in domestic and international forums and welcomes the increasing number of countries endorsing and supporting the historic judgment.
This second takeaway played into the establishment of a bilateral consultative mechanism (BCM) in 2016 to handle the maritime row. Six meetings were convened under this platform, the most recent of which was held virtually in May 2021. Coast guard diplomacy also got a big boost. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishing a Joint Coast Guard Committee was signed in 2016. The third meeting of that committee was hosted by Manila in January 2020 and was marked by the first-ever official visit of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel to the country. As these frontline maritime law enforcement agencies modernize, and their interface with one another and with fisherfolk from various claimant states increases, setting up hotline communications and building a modicum of professional, if not personal, rapport can be helpful in preventing crises. In 2018, the two sides also signed an MOU on Oil and Gas Cooperation, providing a basis for pursuing a joint offshore energy resource undertaking. The first meeting of the inter-governmental joint steering committee on oil and gas development took place in Beijing in October 2019. However, the momentum of these mechanisms hit a snag when the pandemic made intimate in-person talks difficult.
Philippine presidential contenders have expressed openness to the idea of joint development with varying caveats. Frontrunner candidate former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., seen as likely to sustain Duterte’s China policy, prefers direct negotiations on the maritime flashpoint, a move conducive to the joint venture. On the other hand, Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo premised any talks on the semi-enclosed sea on China’s recognition of the tribunal award, a problematic deal starter. Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso is receptive to the idea, saying he will use the proceeds to lower power costs to make the country more competitive, and fund naval and coast guard modernization. Joint development also sits well with Senator Panfilo Lacson so long as it will comply with the constitutional 60-40 equity rule in favor of the country. Senator Emmanuel Pacquiao is likewise amenable to the concept to avoid tensions. The high price of imported oil due to the war in Ukraine and rising energy demand may provide a sense of urgency to fast-track talks.
Two related developments further reinforce Manila’s commitment to practical cooperation in contested maritime spaces and resolving disputes with neighbors through dialogue. Last November, the Philippines, and Vietnam resumed the Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea (JOMSRE). This confidence-building science diplomacy measure helps bring crucial constituencies – marine scientists and fisheries experts – on board. Its first iteration ran from 1994 to 2007 as a bilateral initiative, and was opened to other participants from Southeast Asia and China. Hence, the prospect of JOMSRE 2.0 forming the nucleus for a broader engagement among coastal states is there. Also, last November, the Philippines and Indonesia began preparatory talks to delimit their continental shelves in the adjoining Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, with a second meeting taking place last month. These meetings build on the successful delimitation of their overlapping exclusive economic zones in the area – a treaty that entered into force in 2019 and is 20 years in the making. The conclusion of this maritime boundary delimitation, the first for the Philippines, shows that Manila is willing and able to sit down with neighbors to settle issues peacefully.
Furthermore, as ASEAN-China country coordinator from 2018 to 2021, Manila played a vital role in preparing the first Single Draft Negotiating Text of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea in 2019. By outlining unacceptable behavior, the COC, despite its limitations, can socialize claimants and even third parties to adhere to some basic decorum to help avert untoward incidents. Three months after relinquishing its coordinator role to Myanmar last August, the second reading of the text took place.
Gratitude to a tested partner, advice to a successor
In the early April meeting between ministers Wang and Locsin, the latter’s seventh trip to China, the Philippines’ top diplomat described relations as “becoming increasingly mature, with bilateral pragmatic cooperation achieving historic results and bringing lasting benefits to both sides.” In the last six years, China emerged as the country’s largest trade partner and export market, second-largest investor, fastest-growing tourist market, and rising infrastructure builder. Furthermore, China also funded the construction of drug rehabilitation centers to support the country’s war on illegal drugs and was an indispensable partner in the fight against Covid-19. Beijing was a pioneer in donating masks and other critical medical supplies and the first to donate and supply Covid-19 vaccines to the country. These economic and humanitarian contributions helped vindicate Duterte’s approach. Despite the persistence of sea incidents and an economy battered by the health crisis in the last two years, his approval rating remains high a month before the election, a unique phenomenon in Philippine politics.
Regardless of the outcome of the May 9th polls, the South China Sea will continue to beset bilateral ties. But it is not the disputes per se, but their place in the bigger picture that would matter and determine the course of the relations. Duterte and Xi “acknowledged that even while disputes existed, both sides remained committed to broaden the space for positive engagements which reflected the dynamic and multidimensional relations of the Philippines and China.” Wang and Locsin concurred, pointing “that maritime issues should be put in a proper place in bilateral relations.” From this vantage point, Duterte’s exit call with Xi, favored to secure a third term in the coming 20th Communist Party of China Congress late this year, is not only a message of appreciation to a reliable partner. It is also very much a word of advice to his incoming predecessor.