Published daily by the Lowy Institute

South China Sea: A formula for the Philippines

Manila should adopt a three-pronged response to Beijing's assertiveness.

Filipino fishing boat (Indigo Skies Photography/Flickr)
Filipino fishing boat (Indigo Skies Photography/Flickr)

Shortly before handing over the chairmanship of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to Laos, Indonesia corralled regional states for an unprecedented move. For the first time in recent memory, the regional body issued a stand-alone statement on the dangerous escalation of maritime spats between the Philippines, a founding ASEAN member, and China, a major economic partner.  

Although the regional body didn’t directly criticise China, it reaffirmed its “solidarity” with a besieged member state and emphasised the importance of “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to threat or use of force.”  

Having wrongly expected a ‘new golden era’ of bilateral relations with Marcos Jr, who initially signalled continuity with his pro-Beijing predecessor, China is now lashing out.

Crucially, ASEAN nations spoke of “our maritime sphere”, underscoring shared concern over the escalating tensions in the disputed waters. In effect, the regional body rejected Beijing’s insistence that the situation is “generally stable” and that the disputes are purely a bilateral affair among rival claimants. It also indirectly questioned Beijing’s de facto claim over the bulk of the South China Sea basin under the bogus “nine-dashed-line” doctrine.  

Evidently, the situation is so troubling that even the notoriously passive ASEAN has been forced to make such an unprecedented statement. In the past two months alone, Chinese vessels water-cannoned Philippine resupply vessels en route to the disputed Second Thomas Shoal at least twice.

But after six years of subservience under the pro-Beijing Rodrigo Duterte presidency, the Southeast Asian nation is once again stepping up its efforts to protect its sovereign rights.

Since the late-1990s, the Philippines has exercised effective control over the Second Thomas Shoal, a low-tide elevation that falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. A grounded vessel, Sierra Madre, has served as the de facto base for Filipino marines for more than two decades. 

A 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), made it clear that the Second Thomas Shoal is simply a low-tide elevation which can’t be claimed as sovereign territory. It also flatly rejected China’s expansive claims across much of the South China Sea basin.  

Nevertheless, China has gradually stepped up its efforts to eject Philippine troops from the Second Thomas Shoal after wresting control of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in 2012. In recent months, China has tightened the noose around the Philippine-occupied features like never before.  

Last November, as many as 38 Chinese vessels swarmed the Second Thomas Shoal, while a Chinese coast guard vessel water cannoned Philippine vessels en route to disputed feature, including one with the Philippine military chief onboard. A month later, two Philippine vessels were damaged after encounters with Chinese vessels in the area. Chinese vessels didn’t hesitate to also ram into Philippine resupply ships.  

Meanwhile, a 135-strong armada of Chinese maritime militia vessels anchored within the Philippine-claimed Whitsun Reef in the Spratlys. In the Scarborough Shoal, a Chinese coast guard vessel water cannoned a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel providing supplies to Filipino fishing boats in the area. More ominously, China has threatened direct intervention should the Philippines press ahead with fortifying its presence in the Second Thomas Shoal.  

China’s unusually aggressive behaviour stands in stark contrast to its relatively calibrated response to assertive moves by other claimant states, most notably Malaysia’s unilateral development of energy resources in Beijing-claimed waters as well as Vietnam’s steady militarisation of occupied features in the South China Sea in recent years.  

By all indications, it seems China has been caught off-guard by the increasingly proactive policies of the Ferdinand Marcos Jr administration. Following a largely fruitless visit to Beijing last year, the Filipino president greenlit expanded security cooperation with Western partners, including granting the Pentagon access to key bases close to Taiwan’s southern shores, as well as adopting an aggressive transparency initiative in the South China Sea to expose China’s intimidation tactics in the area.  

Having wrongly expected a "new golden era" of bilateral relations with Marcos Jr, who initially signalled continuity with his pro-Beijing predecessor, China is now lashing out. But with vast majority of Filipinos backing a tougher stance on the South China Sea disputes, and thanks to growing support from traditional allies such as the United States, Australia and Japan, the Marcos administration has every reason to stay its course in order to preserve its sovereign rights in the area.  

Accordingly, the Philippines should adopt a three-pronged response. First, it should remain dogged in exposing China’s bullying tactics as well as fortifying its position in areas under its control. To battle Beijing’s evolving grey zone tactics, the Philippines should redeploy more vessels to the South China Sea theatre, expand its domestic naval military-industrial capacity, and adopt asymmetric measures to counter superior Chinese forces such as creating an auxiliary maritime force and expanding its fleet of drones, fast attack boats, and anti-ship missiles. The Philippines needs to win China’s grudging respect after six years of subservience under Duterte.  

Even the notoriously passive ASEAN has been forced to make an unprecedented statement.

Moreover, the Philippine has to deter various efforts by China to infiltrate the Philippines’ critical infrastructure and create divisions within the Philippines through vectors of disinformation. Taking a page from fellow democracies such as Australia, the Marcos Jr administration will have to adopt stringent measures to battle influence operations by Beijing. It should block efforts by China-affiliated companies seeking investments in strategic locations, most notably in Fuga Island and Cagayan Province (near Taiwan) as well as in Grande and Chiquita Islands (near Subic Bay).  

The Philippines will also has to leverage and expand its maritime security cooperation with traditional allies and likeminded nations, most notably through regularised joint patrols in the South China Sea. Through a wide network of allies and partners, the Philippines should rapidly source modern weapons systems to upgrade its maritime defensive capabilities.  

Once the Philippines achieves a position of strength, it should move towards decisive diplomacy with China. For instance, the Marcos Jr administration can reconsider any massive American military presence in northernmost Philippine bases close to Taiwan in exchange for China’s de facto acceptance of expanded Philippine military presence in the Second Thomas Shoal and other features under its control. The Philippines and China can also restart negotiations over a service contract agreement to develop energy resources in contested areas such as Reed Bank as long as Philippine sovereign rights are preserved.

Despite the risks, this is a historic opportunity for the Philippines to stand its ground, enhance its strategic position, and preserve its sovereign rights in the South China Sea.

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