Chinese Coast Guard vessels at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters / Erik De Castro

The photo above is symbolic, as it shows how China uses hard power and coercive tactics in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The picture taken on May 6, 2013, shows crew members standing on a fishing vessel setting sail for the Spratly Islands, an archipelago disputed between China and other countries including Vietnam and the Philippines, from Danzhou in southern China’s Hainan province.

China has sent one of its largest fishing fleets on record to disputed islands in the South China Sea, state-run media said on May 7, amid tensions over Beijing’s assertion of its claims in the region even after the July 12, 2016, Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in favor of the Philippines.

On March 27, China assured Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte of its commitment to a “bilateral mechanism” and a code of conduct that would prevent territorial disputes in the South China Sea from erupting into conflict. According to presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua told Duterte during a meeting in Davao City that China was looking forward to the convening in May of the first meeting of the bilateral mechanism set up to handle the South China Sea disputes.

Yes, this was another development in the negotiation – floating offers from both sides with promises of investment and security.

A landmark lantern marks the 50th anniversary of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations at the entrance to the venue of the 50th ASEAN regional security forum in Manila on August 8, 2017.

Under Duterte, the Philippines has invested heavily in its legal strategy against China, initiating a costly arbitration procedure to address the South China Sea disputes. On the ground, China has been rapidly consolidating its grip on a whole host of contested features, building a sprawling network of military and civilian bases, and creating the skeleton of an Air Defense Identification Zone.

In many ways, the Philippines’ South China Sea strategy seems to be driven by an army of lawyers rather than tangible defense of its fortifications on the ground.

Zhao also said China would cooperate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations toward the conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

The Philippines, as this year’s ASEAN chair, is pushing for the completion of the framework for the proposed code of conduct. China is nonetheless being threatened by political friction in ASEAN, which is becoming strong in the Asia-Pacific region.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, but the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have competing claims in the strategic waterway through which US$5 trillion worth of global trade passes every year. Imagine the loss that can bring to China’s economic shoreline if neglected its relation with these states, trying to exercise open diplomacy amid mediation and competition in the strategic landscape.

Though the United Nations-backed PCA in The Hague ruled in Manila’s favor last year in a case brought by the Philippines, there is no  guarantee of China’s allegiance to it. Its obedience is not to the UN or the US but to what deals it can deal with the Philippines.

The PCA ruling invalidated China’s claim and declared that Beijing had violated Manila’s rights to fish and explore for resources in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. Then Duterte, after winning the presidential election last year, upended Philippine foreign policy by deferring assertion of the tribunal’s ruling, steering the country away from the United States, and making overtures to China and Russia.

Some say Duterte’s detractors should be thankful instead of bashing him. If not for his election as president, China would have already built an artificial island in the Scarborough Shoal. One might say that China wanted to re-establish good relations with the Philippines, thus it indefinitely postponed its plans for the shoal. It does make sense but it may also be a warning to the Philippines.

Let us also remember that over the past three years, as the snail’s-pace arbitration procedures gained shape, China reportedly reclaimed more than 800 hectares across the South China Sea, while expanding its patrols and conventional military exercises in the area like the continuous expansionism in Scarborough (aka Panatag) Shoal vis-a-vis Benham Rise in the northeastern part of the Philippines.

The Asia-Pacific region has been in a power vacuum since the end of the Cold War. China has become aggressive in its maneuvers, and thus a response to the power vacuum in the region, especially as the Philippines has struggled to strike an independent course after almost a century of dependence on the United States.

Aside from employing diplomacy, both bilaterally with China and under the aegis of ASEAN, the Fidel Ramos administration (1992-1998) responded to the evolving security environment in the region by initiating a decades-long program to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This is also a challenge to Duterte administration: that while the Philippines is making friends with China, it needs to beef up its military to prepare the nation for any possible clout.

In the meantime, the hope is that China’s response will not just remain as words in the sand but become a strong statement of fact to be governed in cooperation and development for both players under one pact of security – a clear and comprehensive code of conduct.

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Jumel G. Estrañero

Jumel Gabilan Estrañero is a defense analyst/researcher in the Philippine government while teaching political science, geopolitics, international negotiation, multilateral diplomacy, political economy and geography, international trade, practice and policies, and other social sciences. His articles have appeared and quoted in Asia Maritime Reviews, The Nation (Bangkok, Thailand), Southeast Asian Times, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Times, and Malaya Business Insights.