The bilateral relationship between China and the Philippines is a web of complex tensions. After turbulent relations under President Ferdinand Marcos into the late 20th century, relations with China seemed to be warming up. That is, until the South China Sea disputes caused a sharp change in dialogue. China has made palpable efforts to claim influence in the contested Spratly territory. This includes an intensive militarization of the maritime features. The Philippines has fought back against China’s assertions by using multiple strategies to strengthen their own claims. These strategies include utilizing a national narrative, The Hague trial and verdict, forging alliances, taking advantage of powerful positions, and diplomatic cooperation.
Similar to China’s overused tactic, the Philippines also appeals to its national history in order to legitimize its current actions. The Philippines has used its historical ties to the island to attach its national narrative and identity to the contested territories. In 1951, Japan was forced to renounce its claims to various islands in the South China Sea in the Treaty of San Francisco and the Treaty of Peace with Taiwan. China was not included in these discussions. Thus, a void in ownership was present. China immediately took advantage of the opportunity to reiterate sovereignty over the islands and China’s reach of control in the South China Sea. However, in 1956, Philippines native Tomas Cloma discovered what he thought to be fifty-three unclaimed features in the South China Sea. China, claiming the territory to be under its domain since the Han dynasty in 2 B.C., forced Cloma to relinquish his claims and apologize for his actions. Cloma was also forced to sell the land to the Philippine government. About twelve years thereafter, under President Ferdinand Marcos Philippine troops invaded three of the islands. This resulted in islands being placed under the jurisdiction of the Philippine province of Palawan in 1978.
The most common strategy regarding U.S.-Philippine claims in the South China Sea is the case that brought the dispute to center stage. Although the PCR believed the case would not and could not be heard by The Hague court, it was in fact accepted for hearing and was thus a major blow to China. The Philippines made the case that questioned the legal status of every feature in the Spratly islands. By doing so, the tribunal nullified Beijing’s loosely historic claims. The Hague ruled on the legal status of every feature in the Spratly Islands raised by the Philippines. It found that not one of the Spratlys, including the largest maritime features, is technically an island because, by maritime law, they cannot sustain a stable community of humans or independent economic life. As such, the rights to China’s island claims are relevant only to territorial seas, not exclusive economic zones (EEZs) or continental shelves. Several features included in China’s claims were determined to be mere rock formations and other reefs, voiding China’s maritime entitlements. Altogether, the decisions announced by The Hague invalidate any Chinese claim within the nine-dash line to more than the disputed islets themselves and the territorial seas they generate. This is excellent news to the Philippines who felt the encroaching presence of China too close to home
Wary of being bullied by China into acquiescing, the Philippines have made tremendous efforts to build up alliances with the Asian community as a defensive strategy. In February 2016, Philippine defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Japanese ambassador to the Philippines Kazuhide Ishikawa signed a defense agreement. This agreement allowed: the trade of Japanese defense equipment and technology to the Philippines in addition to joint research and development, and even joint production, of defense equipment and technology. The agreement specifies a Philippine-Japan joint committee that will oversee transfers and how the materiel will be used. The Philippines weapons trade alliance with Japan is the first of its kind between two Asian nations. It also exemplifies the Philippine government’s tactic of joining forces with another nation with similar territory disputes in the South China Sea. A united front against China, especially with one of the Philippines’ major trading partners (Japan), is a very powerful weapon that if employed properly could back China down from its lofty position of power. In addition, increased avenues of weapons sales means that the Philippines can defend its existing territory claims in the South China Sea. Also, the arms deals with Japan provide more accurate surveillance to monitor and prevent unauthorized claimants from occupying the claimed islands and reefs.
In September 2016, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This is a very useful strategic tool for the Philippines regarding the South China Sea issue with China. Following his inauguration, Duterte embarked on his ASEAN tour, visiting member governments in Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, Thailand, and Malaysia. While these visits were introductory and focused on regional issues, Duterte’s talks encompassed overarching themes, including Asian security, maritime cooperation, investing in each other, and cooperation via trade. In his reign as Chairman of ASEAN, Duterte is taking every opportunity to strengthen cooperative relations with other nations in the Asian community. As a result, Duterte could achieve less competition over maritime claims as well as mass unification and open lines of aid should China attempt a forceful repossession in the South China Sea. The Philippines alone is not enough to make China back down, but multiple players in the region with shared interests and deep investment in each other could certainly deter Beijing.
The Modus Vivendi
Surprisingly, contrary to the previously discussed strategies but an excellent combination is the Philippines’ strategy of modus vivendi, an agreement allowing conflicting parties to coexist peacefully. While the prior intimidation tactics could isolate China (a detrimental maneuver) maintaining cooperative relations with China despite tensions is critical. In October 2016, Duterte met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for similar discussion on security, cooperation, and investment. This friendly gesture provided enough room for Duterte’s administration to file an informal note verbal two months later in tepid protest to Beijing’s synthetic island construction in the South China Sea. Duterte’s actions sent clear signals to the Chinese government that despite warm relations, the issue of claims within the South China Sea is of national interest to the Philippines. The result was a watershed moment between countries that had gotten along poorly under the previous Philippine president. China ultimately promised $24 billion in aid and investment and both agreed to put aside their maritime dispute for later discussion – a modus vivendi. In addition, despite efforts to create cohesion and facilitate mobilization with other ASEAN countries, the Philippines kept territory disputes within the unilateral realm. Should the Philippines have rallied its new allies and charged full-force at Beijing to list its grievances. China would have recoiled in shock, hurting the entire Asian community and quite possibly the rest of the world. Because Duterte eschewed the multilateral approach, China is much more willing to cooperate with a single government with a few manageable demands.
The Philippines has offered significant pushback against China’s claims in the South China Sea. Their efforts have been successful, given the outcome of The Hague trial. However, China’s angry yet flippant dismissal of the verdict has had little effect on its proceedings in the South China Sea. The Philippines recognizes this and has not come forth, insisting China remove its forces from the territories where its entitlements were nullified.
Instead the Philippines have taken a more diplomatic route, offering cooperation and mutually beneficial relations in return for China’s continued peaceful presence and refraining from further island encroachment. Duterte does not seek total control over the South China Sea islands/maritime features, but it does insist on retaining the claims it currently protects. The strategies the Philippines have employed certainly resulted in a success for the Philippines, China, and the Asian community.