An undated photo shows two Chinese jet fighters during a military drill in the South China Sea. Photo AFP/Stringer
An undated photo shows two Chinese jet fighters during a military drill in the South China Sea. Photo AFP / Stringer

Days after the Philippines and China signaled a new modus vivendi in the South China Sea, bilateral relations are once again under strain over military posturing in the strategic waterway.

Recent reports suggest China is tightening the noose around the Philippine-claimed and strategically sensitive Thitu Island – which hosts a large Filipino community with its own mayor – by deploying several naval and coast guard ships provocatively close to the feature in the disputed Spratly Islands.

Despite a feel-good Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit held in Manila at which a new negotiation track was opened for a ‘Code of Conduct’ in the maritime area, many in Manila are questioning anew whether President Rodrigo Duterte’s soft-pedaling on the issue is an effective national strategy.

During Asean ministerial meetings held in Manila in early August, the Philippines exercised its prerogative as the regional body’s rotational chairman to shield Beijing against any criticism over its reclamation and militarization activities in the disputed waters.

Contrary to latest satellite imagery, both Chinese and Philippine foreign ministers falsely claimed that China has not engaged in any recent reclamation activities in the Spratly chain of islands, a resource-rich contested area in the South China Sea.

Construction on Mischief Reef in the disputed South China Sea in a June 19, 2017 satellite image released by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Photo: CSIS-AMTI/DigitalGlobe via Reuters

Certain Southeast Asian countries, particularly the Philippines, have hoped to expand economic relations with the Asian powerhouse in exchange for a more conciliatory approach to the sea disputes.

While China agreed to a new negotiation framework at the meeting, critics noted the drawn-out process first started in 2002 in a non-binding ‘Declaration of Conduct’ as allowed China to consolidate its military position in the area. Many doubt China will ever agree to a binding code for an area where it is fast achieving strategic supremacy.

The Philippines and China are also weighing Joint Development Agreements (JDAs) in overlapping claimed areas, including in the hydrocarbon-rich waters off the western Philippine island of Palawan. During a congressional hearing, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano endorsed the prospect of joint Philippine-Chinese energy exploration and development projects at the contested Reed Bank.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano (R) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) before a recent bilateral meeting in Manila. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

China, the Philippines and Vietnam all claim the oil and gas-rich bank. In 2011, Chinese vessels chased off the a survey ship hired by Forum Energy — a UK-based company the Philippines had granted a concession to explore the area. The following year, the US and Philippine navies conducted joint war games near Reed Bank.

With the nearby Malampaya gas field – developed by multinational energy companies including the US’ Chevron Corporation beginning in 2002, and once holding 3.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves – expected to run dry by 2024, Manila is desperately scrambling for new close-to-home energy sources to fuel its fast growing economy.

“If we can come up with a commercial deal [with China] better than [the one in] Malampaya in the disputed areas, how can any Filipino argue with that?” remarked Cayetano, making a direct pitch for JDAs with Beijing.

Even the Philippines’ defense establishment seems to be gradually warming to the idea of a modus vivendi with China, albeit with lingering misgivings.

Filipino Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on the Philippine occupied Thitu Island in the Spratly Islands on April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who has sounded alarm bells over China’s maritime intentions, claimed during a recent congressional budget hearing that Beijing has vowed to “not occupy new features in the South China Sea” and refrain from “build[ing] structures in Scarborough Shoal” – a bitterly disputed and fisheries-rich land feature around 100 nautical miles off the Philippine coast.

In February, Lorenzana warned that any Chinese reclamation on the contested shoal would be “unacceptable” because the sea feature is “so close” to major Philippine military bases at Subic and Clark. The military facility is still regularly accessed by American forces.

As such, there are now known discussions at the US Pentagon about putting the contested shoal under the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty, which requires each party to defend the other in the case of an external attack on its territory.

In recent years, the United States Navy has sought to deter further Chinese revanchist designs by conducting surveillance missions close to the Scarborough Shoal, which fell under Chinese Coast Guard administrative control after a brief standoff with the Philippines in mid-2012.

US Navy personnel prepare to launch an F-18 fighter jet from the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier during an exercise in the South China Sea in March 2017. Photo: Reuters

“It would be a very serious thing if China will occupy any of the [Philippine-claimed] islands,” warned Lorenzana, suggesting that Beijing has taken note of Manila’s anxieties over the prospect of China developing military installations so close to its shores.

Other lawmakers, however, remained skeptical of China’s supposed commitment. Gary Alejano, a leading opposition legislator and former military officer, warned about “suspicious massing up of Chinese Navy and Coast Guard and maritime militia north of [Thitu] Island,” which he described as “a threat to our interest in [the] West Philippine Sea.”

The legislator, who maintains strong ties with former military colleagues, said he had “received information from sources in the military” that in recent days China has deployed up to five vessels, including two frigates, one coast guard vessel and two large fishing boats, as close as a nautical mile north of the Philippine-occupied island.

The China-claimed Subi Reef seen from the Philippine-claimed island of Thitu in the contested Spratly Islands on April 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

China has already expanded its occupation of the nearby Subi Reef, which hosts an airstrip and advanced dual civilian-military facilities. Philippine planes carrying top military officials, including Lorenzana, have repeatedly faced harassment from China whenever they land in Thitu Island by passing through the vicinity of Subi Reef.

Chinese fishermen have also been accused of destroying coral reefs surrounding the Philippine-occupied island, depriving the large Filipino community on Thitu Island of much-needed food resources and livelihoods. Tensions could rise in coming months as the Philippines aims to fortify its position on the island by upgrading its facilities and expanding its four-decade-old airstrip.

Despite Duterte’s best efforts to improve bilateral ties, China seems poised to continue its militarization and expansionism in the maritime region. The future of Philippine-China relations will thus ultimately depend on actual developments and kept commitments rather than diplomatic niceties and cordial rhetoric exchanged by fawning political leaders.

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