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Foreign Policy

The Tricky Triangle: South China Sea Disputes and China-Philippines-US Relations

May 08, 2019
  • Chen Xiangmiao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China National Institute for South China Sea Studies

Since the beginning of 2019, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has released three reports, claiming China has been employing a multilayered “cabbage strategy”: dispatching a “maritime militia” of hundreds of fishing boats, monitoring Philippine construction on Zhongye Island, and seemingly intentionally disturbing free movement in the South China Sea. Manila has issued relatively strong messages to Beijing in response. Many in the international community believe the Philippines may thus adjust its current policy that favors Beijing and estranges Washington, instead seeking a balance between the two major countries. Observers expect the meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing to play a decisive role. But such predictions may be unmerited, as Duterte’s pragmatic administration cannot get rid of China in the short term. In the long term, the commonly invoked “equilibrium” whereby the Philippines “depends on China for economy and the US for security” may prove to be an overly simplistic paradigm.

Just as the Filipino foreign minister said on April 10, now and in the future, the US will remain his country’s only military ally, and an alliance with China is absolutely impossible. Despite Duterte’s sometimes fierce anti-Washington rhetoric, the US-Filipino military alliance has never been truly weakened. The current administration in Manila not only supports the  expansion of the US military base it hosts,  but also tries earnestly to seek weapons assistance cooperation with the US military, while maintaining bilateral annual military exercises at their present level. 

Economically, the US has long been the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner. Since Duterte assumed the presidency, China has been the largest. But that doesn’t mean Manila has adopted a balancing strategy featuring economic reliance on China and military dependence on the US. Indeed, Duterte has been trying to actively engage the US economically since assuming office, while China’s economic advantage has much to do with its geographic proximity. 

There is no sign the Duterte government will compromise on the South China Sea — it has merely replaced former President Aquino III’s confrontational approach with a more pragmatic one so as to ease maritime tensions and take advantage of China’s rapid growth. On the arbitration issue, Duterte and his team avoided enraging China, choosing to abandon the arbitration process as Beijing’s precondition for consultations over the South China Sea. This move won both Beijing’s trust and huge aid, investments, and trade orders from Beijing. But Filipino government agencies and officials have stuck to their belief in arbitration’s “effectiveness,” even in the latest dispute over Zhongye Island. 

On resource development, since 2017 Beijing has offered technical assistance when it comes to exploiting fisheries, while the two parties may jointly develop and prospect oil and gas in the South China Sea. Collaborating with China on fossil fuel development in these waters may not only serve to avoid external political and diplomatic friction, but also bring technological and economic benefits. However, Manila has insisted such collaboration does not affect each party’s territorial claims, and asked Beijing to affirm that it won’t disturb Filipino fishing activities in waters off Huangyan Island and nearby areas. 

The Duterte government has thus turned Manila’s China policy from total confrontation to constructive negotation, so that the Philippines can ride the “express train” of China-driven growth, greatly reducing the costs borne by the Filipino petroleum and fishing industries in the South China Sea. 

Neither outright conflict nor completely overlapping interests are feasible or achievable in the real world — and such is the case in China-Phillipines relations. 

Over the mid- to long-term, China-Philippine disputes surrounding sovereign rights over South China Sea territories and jurisdiction of related waters cannot be resolved. Due to the rapid development of information technology, it is impossible for both parties to seek mutual compromise by  traditional means such as secret agreements where both parties swap interests in compensation. Neither side’s decisionmakers can make any significant concessions on territorial and maritime rights, because it would prompt unimaginably strong nationalistic feelings—even to the point of threatening each government’s legitimacy. The parties may prevent maritime conflicts from escalating with the anticipated “COD”, but friction and conflict resulting from overlapping territorial and maritime claims remain inescapable. 

Decisionmakers in both countries have clearly taken notice that a win-win outcome is impossible without a shared political will to seek collaboration. They have to shelve maritime disputes in order to create a productive political and diplomatic environment. Although Duterte told Xi  that China should “respect [the] ruling of the arbitration,” the pace of the two parties’ enthusiastic cooperation has hardly been affected. The two parties signed 19 agreements worth $12 billion, while Beijing made a 1-billion-yuan aid commitment during the recent Second Belt & Road Summit for International Cooperation in Beijing. 

China should be aware that the Philippines may be a “good friend” but will not be a military ally; the US should also be aware Manila will not let its relations with Beijing sink into complete confrontation, as this is inconsistent with the country’s need for economic development, and would damage the ruling party’s legitimacy. In other words, finding an equilibrium point for the three parties’ strategies and interests may be easier from a bilateral perspective than from a thornier trilateral approach.


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