MANILA – Just weeks before Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s maiden visit to China, bilateral tensions in the South China Sea are once on the boil.
China is now building up several unoccupied land features in the contested maritime area, according to recent reports citing Western officials, an apparent unprecedented move on territories it didn’t already occupy.
In a strongly-worded statement, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) condemned China’s latest reclamation activities in the Spratly group of islands.
“We are seriously concerned as such activities contravene the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea’s undertaking on self-restraint and the 2016 Arbitral Award,” said the DFA in a statement, referring to 2002 agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China and a ruling at the Hague, which categorically rejected Beijing’s expansive claims in adjacent waters.
Marcos Jr has repeatedly maintained that bilateral relations with China should not be defined by a single issue. Yet the maritime disputes continue to haunt long-running efforts to deepen bilateral relations between the two neighbors.
For its part, China has also been perturbed by Manila’s swift pivot back to Washington under Marcos Jr, who has welcomed expanded defense cooperation with the Pentagon after a cool period under his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
China is likely intent on signaling its dismay with the new direction in Philippine foreign policy, yet at the same time likely won’t want to squander the chances for a “new golden era” of bilateral relations under the Marcos Jr administration.
Manila now finds itself in a strategic sweet spot, wherein it can simultaneously court two superpowers while pursuing its own economic and military interests.
In fact, the past year has shown that several Southeast Asian countries have not only deftly navigated Sino-American competition, but have also managed to nudge the two superpowers towards favorable outcomes, most notably during the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Having it both ways
Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that, based on satellite imagery taken on November 4, 2022, by Maxar Technologies, Beijing had begun consolidating its reclamation activities dating back to 2014 on the Eldad Reef, which is claimed by both China and the Philippines.
Last week, the Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) similarly expressed concerns over the reported swarming of Chinese vessels in Manila-claimed Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the same area. Acting Defense Secretary Jose Faustino warned, “we will not give up a single square inch of Philippine territory.”
Last month, the Philippines was also alarmed over another incident whereby a Chinese military vessel “forcefully” seized rocket debris, which was initially retrieved by a Philippine navy vessel. This year alone, Manila filed 193 note verbales in response to Chinese provocations in the disputed waters.
The timing and growing intensity of China’s provocations of the Philippines are unlikely to be coincidental. By several indications, Chinese authorities seem to have been caught off guard by the radical shift in Philippine foreign policy in the past six months.
Ahead of declaring his presidential candidacy last year, Marcos Jr categorically defended Duterte’s Beijing-friendly foreign policy. As a leading candidate, he effectively parroted much of Duterte’s conciliatory and at times subservient rhetoric towards China, while barely mentioning the Philippines’ defense alliance with the US.
During his interactions with Chinese officials, Marcos Jr is known to evoke his family’s long-standing relationship with Beijing, which dates back to his father’s normalization of bilateral ties with Maoist China.
Once in power, the new Filipino president underscored his commitment to a “new golden era” of relations with China, which he described as the Philippines’ “strongest partner” for post-pandemic economic recovery.
With mounting public debt and a large number of unfinished infrastructure projects, Marcos Jr has actively courted Chinese investments in the Philippines. As such, Beijing likely expected the new Filipino president to mimic his predecessor’s China-centered foreign policy.
In stark contrast to the often defeatist rhetoric of his predecessor, Marcos Jr has also taken an uncompromising position on the South China Sea disputes with China. In another major departure, Marcos Jr also openly welcomed expanded defense and strategic ties with Western allies and partners.
In his first few months in office, Marcos Jr met US President Joe Biden twice in person, while hosting US Vice President Kamala Harris and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Manila. While Duterte repeatedly threatened to end the Philippine-US alliance, Marcos Jr is set to oversee the largest wargames and largest number of joint military activities between the two allies next year.
Much to Beijing’s chagrin, the Philippines is also set to greenlight American access to key bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was signed in 2014 but broadly constrained by the Duterte administration.
To make matters worse for China, the new administration in the Philippines has expressed its willingness to open strategically-located bases close to both the South China Sea as well as Taiwan’s southern shores in the near future.
Just as important is Marcos Jr’s decision to walk back his earlier promise to hand the prized defense secretary position to Vice-President Sara Duterte, who has echoed her father’s Beijing-friendly positions. Instead, veteran generals and diplomats with known US-friendly views have been appointed to top strategic positions in the Marcos Jr’s national security establishment.
Tail wagging the dog
In a statement immediately following reports of China’s reclamation activities over Philippine-claimed land features, the US State Department declared, “The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in upholding the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law.”
China has consistently criticized “external meddling” in the maritime disputes. The problem, however, is that it can’t afford to alienate the new Filipino president lest the Southeast Asian country may double down on its alliance with Washington.
It remains to be seen what incentives China is willing to offer the Filipino president next month in order to counterbalance strengthening Philippine-US military cooperation under his administration.
Across Southeast Asia, the past year has seen several regional states astutely navigate US-China strategic competition to their own benefit. ASEAN nations that hosted three major summits in November were at the forefront of efforts to mediate between the two superpowers.
Cognizant of their historical role as a bridge between the West and China, Singaporean leaders have openly called on both sides to exercise caution, re-establish communication channels, and avoid “sleepwalk[ing] into conflict.” The influential city-state has also warned of the disruptive consequences of unrestrained technological and economic warfare between the two superpowers.
Even more dramatic, however, were the successful efforts by Indonesia, the Group of 20 (G20) president this year, to nudge the rival powers towards dialogue.
The upshot was the historic summit between Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping and Biden on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, which produced an unexpected détente between the rival superpowers.
In short, 2022 underscored the capacity and willingness of Southeast Asian nations to not only survive but even thrive in an intense new era of Sino-American completion.
Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian