The South China Sea in the First Quarter of 2018: The Philippines

Salvatore Esquibel Analysis, Asia, Conflict & Security

6 minute read

The first quarter of 2018 demonstrated a changing political atmosphere in the South China Sea. Considering that the Philippines has traditionally laid claims to portions of the South China Sea, which served as the impetus for heated debates between itself and China for years, this article will focus on how these countries have interacted so far in 2018.

Between June and December 2017, there was material evidence that China had constructed functional military settlements on some reefs in the South China Sea. It was reported by the Philippines that the Spratly archipelago had been fortified by the Chinese military with naval and air capability. The Spratly archipelago had been a contested area for years, given the strategic location between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

The apparently unrestrained Chinese activity could possibly lead to more construction on reefs closer to the Philippines. Panganiban (Mischief) reef, which was located in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), about 300 kilometres off the Philippine coast, could see construction in the future if China us left undeterred.

In January 2018, the Philippines demonstrated a more relaxed foreign policy in the South China Sea. When the missile cruiser USS Hopper sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, China, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, verified the vessel and strongly suggested that it leave as it did not have permission to enter Chinese waters and so compromised Chinese sovereignty. The shoal, it should be noted, was located in the Philippine EEZ.

The missile cruiser was sailing under the Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP). China consequently responded to this situation by stating that its presence in the South China Sea will grow so long as the US conducts FONOPs, meaning higher rates of construction seen in areas like the Spratly archipelago. The Philippines said that it did not want to be a part of the “US-China Intramural” and that the U.S. could “take care of its own interests.” This was the same shoal that China apparently seized from the Philippines in 2012. It was eventually given back in 2016. The lack of strong response in the beginning of 2018 indicated a softer stance against Chinese intrusion.

In February 2018, President Duterte further parted with convention. Being questioned about the construction, or at least appearance of, Chinese bases whose proximity to the Philippines would classically have been considered worrisome, Duterte stated that the Chinese bases were built to deter the United States and not the Philippines. This statement signalled a further drift from the idea that the United States and the Philippines were close partners, though they are still treaty-bound allies.

However, it did indicate stronger posturing from the Philippines. Duterte said he allowed China to survey the Spratly archipelago. In late February, Duterte demanded that, if China wished to survey the rest of the archipelago for resources, it would have to be done through a company and not the government. A joint expedition would be planned so as to avoid issues of compromised sovereignty. It would also imply co-ownership.

In March 2018, the Philippines, which traditionally opposed China and its ventures, became friends in a manner that allowed joint partnerships to develop. The Philippines identified sites in the South China Sea that it felt could benefit from joint exploration. Service Contracts 57 and 72 were cited as resource-rich areas that could yield greater returns if both countries jointly explored a part of the South China Sea that previously had been a contentious hot spot.   

Bilateral relations between China and the Philippines have since warmed. A dozen or so projects were scheduled to begin throughout 2018. The Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, stated that there have been bilateral agreements over Philippine infrastructure construction. The agreements would be highly beneficial for Philippine society as it would provide the necessary stimulus to improve local infrastructure and spur the economy.  

The Philippines, then, prioritized domestic development over the territorial dispute. The results so far have yielded greater signs of peace than in previous administrations.

But the Philippine government did not choose to compromise national sovereignty for economic development. While the Philippines did not contend China’s presence on the Shoal in 2018, it did have an issue with how China started to maximize the strategic importance of that Shoal. One particular issue was surveillance.

The disputes over Scarborough Shoal, then, were not so much about possession as they were about the capability to surveil the South China Sea. In mid-March 2018, the Philippine government started to question China’s decision to build an environment monitoring station on the Shoal and directly asked China to justify its decision. There was no immediate answer from Beijing. Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who sat on the legal team during the legal proceedings against China at the Hague in 2013, warned that China may attempt to develop an Air Defense Identification Zone  (ADIZ) on the Shoal, which would provide it with the strongest strategic advantage in the South China Sea.

China would have full radar coverage after the completion of the environment monitoring station. Freedom of navigation and overflights would be affected. FONOPs and overflights are crucial because they challenge excessive maritime claims and ensure that no single military has a stronger advantage in the South China Sea. These operations are legitimate under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). A Chinese ADIZ, then, would significantly limit how ships venture within one of the worlds most strategic waterways.

Consequently, in late March, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana maintained that it would continue to patrol the Scarborough Shoal with Japanese-donated surveillance aircraft, much to Beijing’s protesting disapproval. The planes had the capacity to surveil not only the Shoal but the seven additional Chinese islands that exist beyond it. Lorenzana further argued that the Shoal, since it was situated in the EEZ, granted the Philippines internationally-recognized sovereign rights over the area and that it was actually the Chinese military who had no rights there and so no justifiable reason to protest Philippine surveillance activity.

Tokyo justified that it leased these plans to ensure the security of international sea lanes. Given China’s construction on Scarborough Shoal, it was evident that the Philippines and Japan agreed that their own surveillance activities were necessary to balance against growing Chinese capabilities.

While it seems that tensions between Manila and Beijing have eased, security and sovereignty are issues that so far have not been reconciled in the first quarter of 2018. It remains to be seen, then, whether the economic incentive is sufficient enough to sustain a relationship already fraught with observable differences.