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Dangerous Signals in South China Sea

Jul 21, 2023
  • Luo Liang

    Assistant Research Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

On July 12, the South China Sea arbitration award in the Philippines’ favor turned seven years old, and both the United States and the Philippines have claimed that it is now part of international law. Japan, the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, India and Canada have all taken similar stands to exert pressure on China.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Chinese embassies in the Philippines, Canada and other countries, promptly refuted these accusations. China does not recognize or accept the decision, and does not accept subsequent claims or actions based upon it.

Why does the Philippines obstinately bring up the “shelved” award? And why does the U.S. continue to support the Philippines in this regard? We might discover the solution by examining what the U.S. and the Philippines have been doing in the South China Sea.

Military cooperation

Defense cooperation by the Philippines and the U.S. is seen by the Philippines as the cornerstone of bilateral economic relations. Under the terms of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. has increased security cooperation considerably with the United States after taking office. Notably, the Philippines granted the U.S. military access to nine of its military bases, raising the possibility that these bases would play a more important role in future U.S. military operations in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to the United States, openly declared that the Philippines is crucial for the United States in stopping a possible military action by Beijing against Taiwan.

The expansion of joint military exercises is an attempt to enhance U.S.-Philippine military relations, and plans have been laid for 496 different engagements this year. The military exercise known as “Shoulder-to-Shoulder,” which started in 1991 and has become increasingly intense, goes well beyond what is considered to be a typical exercise in the broadest sense. The yearly joint military exercise, which was completed in April, breaking previous records for duration and level of participation. Australia sent soldiers directly, while Japan, India, the United Kingdom, France and Canada took part as observers — all of which suggests a tendency toward the “NATO-ization” of the Asia-Pacific. Marcos showed interest in both the drills and the military cooperation between the Philippines and the United States by making sure to be present at their conclusion.

Small-scale multilateralism 

The resumption of joint patrols in the South China Sea by the United States and the Philippines is notable. U.S. naval operations chief Admiral Michael Gilday reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to carrying out the patrols during a visit to the Philippines in February. The purpose of the partnership is to improve regional cooperation abilities in these waters.

The Philippines said that joint patrols in the South China Sea might include invitations to regional allies such as Japan and Australia. During the Australian defense minister's visit to the Philippines, the two nations declared their intention to explore the possibility of conducting joint patrols. At present, Australia is considering this.

The militaries of the United States, Japan and the Philippines have also met on numerous occasions to examine potential areas of cooperation and the prospect of holding joint multilateral naval exercises in the Indo-Pacific region. The objective is to further expand practical collaboration and intelligence exchanges through the Japan Official Security Assistance (OSA) cooperation framework, the QUAD’s Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), and other capacity-building initiatives.

The United States, Japan, the Philippines and Australia also held their first four-party defense ministers meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, with security cooperation in the South China Sea as the main topic. The joint patrols in the South China Sea, which had previously been met with some reluctance, was put on the schedule, further complicating the region’s future security situation. 

Testing China’s will 

In addition to contesting China’s sovereignty and rights in the South China Sea, the United States also aims to stoke tensions between China and ASEAN nations. It aggressively encourages military cooperation with the Philippines, incites conflict in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines and routinely invokes the Mutual Defense Treaty in open support for the Philippines. With the help of such daring signals, the Philippines has joined the “first team” of U.S. allies working to restrict and subdue China.

Yet others have applied the brakes. At the July 11 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi declared: “ASEAN will never be a proxy in a rivalry of great powers.” As the current ASEAN rotating chair, this statement represents a general ASEAN consensus. The interests of the countries in the region are not served by U.S. intervention in the South China Sea or by the escalation of regional tensions.

The issue of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea is now being addressed jointly by China and ASEAN nations. They have held 20 high-level official meetings and 39 joint working group meetings. They have completed the second round of text reading successfully and reached agreement on guiding principles for the COC that is timely, practical and significant. They continue to cooperate to uphold the South China Sea’s peace and stability — ASEAN’s top objective. 

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