A file photo shows three China Coast Guard ships in the East China Sea. Photo: China Youth Daily
A file photo of three China Coast Guard ships. Photo: China Youth Daily

MANILA – China’s Xi Jinping sought to leverage the recent ASEAN-China summit – marking the 30th anniversary of bilateral relations – to portray his country as a benevolent power and source of indispensable public good in the region. 

Presenting China as a responsible power, he took a thinly-veiled jab at the US, which is assembling like-minded powers against the resurgent Asian power, for “Cold War thinking,” while praising ASEAN nations for “cast[ing] off the gloom of the Cold War” by maintaining warm relations with all major powers. 

Touting booming bilateral trade and large-scale donations of Chinese Covid-19 vaccines to the region, Xi described China as “a good neighbor, good friend and good partner of ASEAN,” which doesn’t “bully” its smaller neighbors and does not seek “hegemony” in the region. 

His speech, which coincided with rising maritime tensions with the Philippines, could not have been more poorly timed. 

After a week-long diplomatic tussle between Manila and Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal, China has come under fire from all quarters, with anti-Beijing sentiments hardening ahead of crucial presidential elections in the Philippines. 

The European Union and Canada have openly criticized China’s “unilateral” and “provocative” actions, reiterating the importance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a basis to manage disputes.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects a joint military exercise in the South China Sea in April 2018. Photo: Xinhua

US has its say

For its part, the United States called on Beijing to cease “dangerous, provocative, and unjustified” acts in the South China Sea, reiterating that any armed attack on Philippine vessels could activate mutual defense obligations under the Philippine-US alliance. 

The depth of the diplomatic crisis was brought home by no less than Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has used particularly tough language about the disputes. The Filipino leader, known for his Beijing-friendly diplomacy, told fellow summit participants how he “abhors” China’s harassment of Philippine resupply missions in the South China Sea.

The outgoing Filipino president, who oversaw a “golden age” in bilateral relations over the past five years, warned the summit’s host, Beijing, “this does not speak well of the relations between our nations.”

For Beijing, the ASEAN-China summit presented a perfect opportunity to tout the country’s constructive role in the region. In the past three decades, China has emerged as the region’s biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade volume increasing by 85 times from only US$8 billion in 1991 to $684.6 billion in 2020. 

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, China also proved to be a key source of public health-related assistance by donating large amounts of medical equipment and Covid-19 vaccines to Southeast Asian nations. 

During the summit, Xi touted major strides in bilateral relations and promised his Southeast Asian counterparts that China would donate an additional 159 million vaccine doses as well as an additional $5 million to the Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund. He also vowed to push for deeper pandemic-related cooperation, including joint production of vaccines, as part of a broader ASEAN-China “health shield” initiative. 

Announcing the establishment of the China-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership as a “new milestone” in bilateral relations, the Chinese leader also sought to rally Southeast Asian countries against US-led regional groupings by zeroing in on the controversial AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) nuclear submarine deal signed earlier this year. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did not pull any punches. Photo: China-US Focus

Strong rebuke

“China supports ASEAN’s efforts to build a nuclear-weapon-free zone, and is prepared to sign the Protocol to the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone as early as possible,” Xi told his ASEAN counterparts, indirectly criticizing the AUKUS allies for contributing to nuclear proliferation in the region. 

Praising growing cooperation in traditional and non-traditional security areas, Xi also emphasized the need for “joint efforts” in “safeguard[ing] stability in the South China Sea and make it a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation.” 

But Xi’s PR offensive in Southeast Asia met its strongest rebuke from a supposed new ally – the Philippines – which characterized China’s maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters as a “colossal problem.” 

“We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal [Second Thomas Shoal] and view with grave concern other similar developments. This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership,” Duterte said during the ASEAN-China special summit, referring to Chinese coast guard harassment of Philippine resupply vessels Unaiza Mae 1 and Unaiza Mae 3 while en route to the disputed shoal earlier this month. 

“This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership,” he warned, while emphasizing that the 2016 arbitral tribunal award in the South China Sea “provided legal clarity … pointing us to a just and fair solution to our disputes,” the Filipino leader added, emphasizing how the region “must fully utilize these legal tools to ensure that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, stability and prosperity,” he added.

Duterte’s surprisingly tough-worded statement, which was drafted by more Sino-skeptic elements in the country’s diplomatic establishment, came on the heels of concerted criticism of China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea both in the Philippines and also among its allies. 

On Monday, EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Nabila Massrali reiterated Brussel’s “strong opposition to unilateral actions that endanger peace, security, and stability” in the disputed area. 

The chorus grows

“Furthermore, the European Union emphasizes the importance for all parties to respect freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea,” the EU spokesperson added, urging both sides to resolve their disputes in accordance with UNCLOS. 

“In this context, the EU recalls the Arbitration Award rendered under UNCLOS on 12 July 2016, which found that Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf,” she added, in the strongest statement of support by the EU yet on the arbitration issue. 

Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur soon followed suit, emphasizing how Ottawa “stands by UNCLOS and the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration decision.”

“Recent provocative actions taken against the Philippines are inconsistent with obligations of all countries under international law and risk escalation of tensions, to detriment of peace, security, and prosperity,” the Canadian diplomat added. 

The most robust and consequential statement, however, came from Washington, a treaty ally, which wasted no time in countering China’s self-portrayal as a supposedly benevolent regional power. 

“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of this escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability, escalates regional tensions, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price.

The US emphasized its mutual defense obligations to come to the Philippines’ rescue should the latter’s vessels and aircraft in the area come under attack in the South China Sea. The rising tensions are also strengthening the momentum for expanded bilateral defense cooperation, as the two allies move towards full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Under the EDCA, the US plans to preposition weapons systems and rotate large numbers of troops in key bases close to the disputed land features in the South China Sea as part of a broader “integrated deterrence” strategy against China.

Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso, known by his screen name Isko Moreno, after filing his candidacy for the country’s 2022 presidential race on October 4, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ezra Acayan

High-stakes election

By all indications, China’s harassment of Philippine vessels is also bolstering anti-Beijing sentiments amid high-stakes elections. 

In recent days, even centrist candidates such as Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno and veteran Senator Panfilo Lacson, who earlier backed joint resource-exploration schemes with China in the South China Sea, have adopted an increasingly tough stance on the disputes and vowed to uphold the country’s sovereign rights and fortify defense relations with allies. 

“We will invest more [in] our navy and Coast Guard capabilities,” Moreno told Rappler, a Philippine news media outlet, vowing to proactively defend the Philippines’ fisheries resources in the area.

“Will I go to war against them? No, but if I catch them illegally entering our waters, I will turn their ships into decoration under the sea,” the presidential candidate added, invoking Indonesia’s “blow up the boat” policy against illegal fishing vessels. 

On his part, Lacson, who recently visited one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, declared that he “never considered backing out” from his visit despite repeated radio warnings from Chinese troops stationed in nearby land features. 

“This is my country and no foreign armed forces can tell me to stay out,” Lacson said after his visit to Thitu Island, which has been continuously occupied by the Philippines since the 1970s. 

“Being radio challenged by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel stationed more than three nautical miles off the coast of Pag-asa [Thitu Island], I never considered backing out. Aside from the possibility of being fired at being remote, this is my country, not theirs. They had no right. That was my mindset,” he added, reflecting an increasingly nationalist and anti-Beijing mood ahead of next year’s presidential elections.