The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and other regional powers have, despite their best diplomatic efforts, wholly failed to tame China’s maritime ambitions in the South China Sea and beyond.
If anything, Beijing seems to have been emboldened by the apparent acquiescence of its smaller neighbors, which in recent years have wavered between inaction and faint resistance to China’s rising militarization of the contested maritime area.
But Beijing’s unilateral activities in the area, including a big build-up of artificial islands, have provoked a high-stakes debate in even friendly countries such as the Philippines, where the defense establishment is once again openly questioning the wisdom of the elected government’s seeming accommodation.
Under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s chairmanship of Asean in 2017, the regional bloc maintained that the situation in the South China Sea was generally stable, meaning there was no need for confrontation or criticism of China’s activities, though Vietnam lobbied for a firmer collective response.
The Duterte administration insisted that the disputes are best resolved among claimant countries on a bilateral basis, discouraging intervention by external actors and the broader international community. Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei all have competing claims with China in the area.
Manila also refused to raise its own landmark arbitration award at The Hague against China, which nullified the legality of Beijing’s wide-reaching nine-dashed-line map claim over the area, in either its bilateral or multilateral engagements with relevant powers.
Asean also endorsed the negotiation of a legally-binding Code of Conduct (CoC), which has been underway for almost two decades, as the best way forward in managing the South China Sea disputes.
But just as Chinese and Asean nation diplomats negotiated the framework for common rules in the disputed waters, Beijing again changed the facts at sea.
Last year, China pressed ahead with expanding its artificially-built islands over contested land features by reclaiming an additional 290,000 square meters of territory. China also deployed advanced military assets to its claimed features, some replete with military runways, including radar systems and weapon storage facilities.
Experts believe that China is moving closer to establishing full-fledged naval and air bases in the Spratly and Paracel chains of islands as a potential prelude to the imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, a crucial waterway for global trade.
China has not denied its unilateral reconfiguration of disputed areas and has proudly announced its expanding military footprint in the area, stating that the reclamation activities and deployment of new military assets were “reasonably” undertaken.
Under Duterte, the Philippines has sought better relations with the Asian powerhouse in hopes of finding a mutually acceptable and peaceful solution in the South China Sea.
In response to reports of China’s reclamation activities last year, Duterte’s presidential spokesperson Harry Roque maintained that the Philippine government is still “relying on China’s good faith”, since “China has committed not to embark on new reclamations” in the area, particularly over land features claimed by the Philippines.
Roque said that the Philippines prefers a “somehow legally binding” Code of Conduct as the “key to stability in the region.” But frustration is building in certain sectors of the government, particularly among the military’s top brass.
In contrast to the presidential palace’s statements, which have consistently tried to downplay or deny reports of China’s reclamation activities on Philippine-claimed land features, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has taken a more strident stance on the issue.
On January 8, Lorenzana announced that the Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest if reports of Chinese reclamation activities on the Fiery Cross reef, which is also claimed by the Philippines, are verified.
“Our stand here is that we will register our protest through the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) because I know for a fact that the Chinese government said sometime ago that they are not going to militarize those reclaimed islands,” said Lorenza during a press briefing in Fort Magsaysay military base in Neuva Ecija.
“But if it is true that we can prove that they have been putting soldiers in there and even any weapons that would heighten their defensives there, that will be a violation of what they said,” he added.
The presidential palace, however, emphasized that filing a diplomatic complaint is “something that the Department of Foreign Affairs will have to address,” not the Department of Defense (DoD) or defense minister.
Yet, as in past, the Philippine defense establishment is openly prodding the government to take a tougher stance. Lorenzana has long been an advocate of measured engagement with China, welcoming dialogue with the powerhouse but from a position of strength and caution.
Throughout his tenure at the helm of the DoD, Lorenzana has consistently raised concerns over what he has viewed as suspicious Chinese activities in Philippine-claimed waters.
To strengthen the Philippines’ position, Lorenzana also announced that earlier plans for overhauling and upgrading the country’s facilities on Thitu Island in the Spratlys will push through early this year.
When asked about China’s opposition to the plan, the defense minister maintained that, “I don’t think they will protest,” since the Philippines’ “purpose there is peaceful.” He said the plan for revamping facilities on Thitu Island “will [certainly] push through.”
But much will also depend on what Philippine treaty ally America does in the coming months. From the US’ perspective, China poses a growing threat to freedom of navigation and overflight in one of the world’s most important sea-lanes.
According to US President Donald Trump’s newly-released National Security Strategy (NSS), China’s “efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.”
The strategic document also accused Beijing of “mount[ing] a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit US access to the region and provide China a freer hand there” and “risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.”
The problem, however, is that US is no longer widely seen as the preeminent power capable of and willing to undergird regional security and prosperity.
Regional states are anxiously watching whether the Trump administration will finally devise a coherent strategy for the South China Sea in its second year in office or remain distracted by other regional flash points and domestic skirmishes, leaving its allies and partners such as the Philippines at the mercy of China’s designs.