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Philippines Trying to Shape South China Sea Narrative

Jun 21, 2024
  • Du Lan

    Deputy Director at Asia-Pacific Institute, China Institute of International Studies

The Philippines has stepped up its provocative actions in the South China Sea since last year, aiming to advance its illegal claims of maritime rights and interests.

First, the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard have frequently engaged in provocations at sea, including illegal replenishment at Ren’ai Reef, and have stepped up their intrusions and provocative activities at sensitive locations such as Huangyan Island, Ren’ai Reef and Niu’e Reef in an attempt to change the status quo.

Second, the Philippines has intensified its efforts to pit public opinion and perception against China’s attempts to defend its legitimate rights in the South China Sea, posing itself as a victim by smearing China’s actions to defend its rights in the international arena as Chinese coercion and non-compliance with international law.

Because it cannot gain the upper hand given its limited strength, it has resorted to the fabrication of false narratives as a weapon on issues related to the South China Sea.

On one hand, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has adopted a tough tone and frequently raised the issue of the South China Sea on international occasions. In a clear act to play up tensions, Marcos spent much time on the topic at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, claiming that the Philippines is facing mounting pressure from China near its coastline. He stressing that if a citizen of the Philippines were to be deliberately killed in a clash with China’s Coast Guard, this would be “very close to what we define as an act of war.”

On Feb. 29, Marcos visited Australia and delivered a speech to the Australian Parliament, vowing not to allow any attempt by any foreign power to take “even one square inch” of Philippine territory, and would resolutely defend its sovereignty. At the special ASEAN-Australia summit and in a speech at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy soon afterward, Marcos made repeated references to the South China Sea, accusing China of “provocative, unilateral, and illegal actions.” In April, the joint statement of the U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit included a long paragraph attacking China’s policy in the South China Sea and expressed serious concern over China’s so-called “dangerous and provocative actions.” It criticized China’s enforcement measures to safeguard its rights against the illegal resupply of Ren’ai Reef.

The Philippines, on the other hand, has been focusing on implementing an “assertive transparency” strategy in the South China Sea, also known as a new name-and-shame strategy to expose China’s alleged “gray zone” activities. The main driving force behind this strategy is Project Myoushu at the Stanford Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

Ray Powell, the project leader, said that assertive transparency — the strategy of deliberately seeking out the dark spaces where gray zone actors conduct their illegal, malign and coercive acts and then exposing them to public view — is not only important for the Philippines but also as a model for countries around the world.  Guided by this strategy, the Philippine Coast Guard has been stirring up trouble in the South China Sea and inviting Philippine and Western journalists to board the Coast Guard vessels to film the alleged “harassment” by the Chinese Coast Guard against Philippine personnel and fishermen. It has released articles, video and audio on the internet purporting to show China’s “bullying behavior.” Mainstream media in the United States, such as the New York Times and NBC, have all been invited to work with Philippine journalists.

The Philippines also encouraged fishermen and civil organizations to provoke trouble in the South China Sea. Recently, the Philippine Coast Guard is hyping China’s construction of an artificial island at Xianbin Reef as part of its broader orchestrated moves to spread rumors to smear China.

 The features and intentions of the “cognitive warfare” conducted by the Philippines are clear: First, it has combined official hard-line rhetoric with deliberate provocation. It manufactures false narratives by mobilizing the Coast Guards, journalists and civil society organizations in a bid to sway public opinion. It wants to portray itself as the victim and the Chinese side as the villain.

Second, it plays up the “China threat” theory to garner support for itself within the region and beyond, to expand a united front against China in the South China Sea.

Third, it coordinates with the United States in meddling in regional affairs, as well as the U.S. strategic need to encircle China with an expanded military presence in the region.

Over time, China has grown more adept at dealing with the deliberate provocations of the Philippines and has pushed back, including by releasing more facts, such as on-site images and objective data. China has also stepped up its efforts to let its own story be heard through the media and internet, thereby exposing the Philippines’ provocative behavior and true intentions to the public both at home and abroad. It has also explained the Chinese stance on the South China Sea to set the record straight.

Without a doubt, the Philippines could not have gone to such lengths to stir up noise over the South China Sea without the support and instigation of the United States, which is actually pleased to see chaos in the region. That said, the Marcos government has only alienated itself from other countries in Southeast Asia by working hand in glove with the U.S. It is alone in taking sides against China, so it will find itself increasingly isolated from other ASEAN member states.

America’s efforts to co-opt allies such as Japan and Australia into intervening in the South China Sea also exacerbate bloc confrontation in the region and raises concerns among Southeast Asian countries. They see through the intention of the U.S. and the Philippines and all express their willingness to cool down the situation. In the face of the fluid regional situation, the best way forward is to manage disputes through dialogue and consultation, set aside disputes and deal with differences with Asian wisdom. This will safeguard regional peace, stability and development, which is also the prevailing consensus and the shared expectation of the countries in the region.

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