In The News

Understanding the Philippine Standoff with China

April 18, 2012

More than a week after the first incident, a well-publicized series of events rubbing China and the Philippines up against each other while at sea continues. Briefly stated, a Philippine patrol plane spotted Chinese fishing vessels at Scarborough Shoal and a Philippine vessel investigated and found that they had harvested protected species. Chinese vessels then interposed themselves to prevent arrest of the fishermen; both sides protested diplomatically since both sides claim the area; both sides withdrew their protests and the fishermen were allowed to leave (along with their catch); and then the Philippines objected that an archeological research vessel was being harassed by Chinese vessels while the Chinese objected to Filipino and French researchers diving to a Chinese wreck. To top it off, on Monday, April 16, U.S. and Filipino forces began long-scheduled joint exercises (including some on the island of Palawan, the closest major landmass to the disputed area).

This body of water, called the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea depending on one’s perspective, has been the center of contention for some time now. Policy intellectuals have definitely begun to focus on it, especially since there are suspected oil and gas deposits in the area. There are many geo-political considerations, including the U.S. “pivot” to Asia and how the rise of China will affect relations in the region.

South China Sea

From a long-term perspective, what is most striking in this development is the unanimity within the Philippines on the sovereignty issue. In an earlier post, I noted that the general populace’s trust of the United States was much higher than for China. But even those activists and officials who most distrust the United States urge a tough stance against China (while warning against the “even bigger bully,” the U.S.). Others, not automatically anti-American, are looking to evaluate Philippine-U.S. relations in the light of how much assistance the United States (which does not take a position on the sovereignty issues) helps in disputes with China. One aspect of U.S.-Philippine relations might be the provision of increased hardware for maritime defense, including another “Hamilton-Class warship” (the first, delivered in August 2011 was the ship that responded to the first sighting of the Chinese fishermen) and aircraft.

There is also a strain of classical International Relations “realism” in the Philippines. Former Foreign Secretary Roberto R. Romulo has written about the need to balance Philippine foreign policy between the United States and China. But even he worries that the problems at sea are interfering with attempts to keep other relations businesslike. Given China’s increasing economic clout, it is not surprising that the current President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino’s administration emphasizes the need for good commercial relations. Aquino led a business delegation to China in August 2011 in what was by all accounts a successful mission. And the current ambassador-designate to China and old Aquino family friend, Domingo Lee, is primarily a businessman. Unfortunately he has been by-passed by the Commission on Appointments due to criticisms that as a businessman he does not understand the diplomatic needs in assertion of Philippine interests in the disputed seascape. Thus, in this time of contestation the Philippines does not have an ambassador in Beijing and President Aquino is mulling naming a different nominee.

While continuing to interact with the United States, a treaty ally and with whom a “strategic partnership” is growing (Philippine Secretary of Defense Gazmin and Foreign Secretary del Rosario will meet with their counterparts, U.S. Secretaries Panetta and Clinton in Washington, D.C., on April 30), the Philippines is also reaching out to other fora. It is hoped that ASEAN can drive forward a “Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, but the recent ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh (on the 10th Anniversary of more abstract 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) made little progress. Most recently, the Philippines has been urging China to take this to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.

The point in these maneuvers is not to contain the rise of China (likely to be as effective as King Canute ordering the tide not to come in). Rather, the Philippines can strive for an understanding under a rules-based international system that would indeed allow for peaceful resolution of dispute while business continues on other issues. Walter Russell Mead has repeatedly in his blog, Via Meadia, made the same point from the viewpoint of the United States. In this way mutual interests can be served, reaping the benefits of gains of economic relations.

This is the thirteenth posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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