China challenges Philippines in the South China Sea
19 Mar 2014|

Philippines marines

While much of the world was busy watching Russia swallow Crimea, few realised that an also dangerous territorial tit-for-tat had begun to unfold earlier this month more in the South China Sea.

At Second Thomas Shoal, a handful of Philippine marines have long been stationed and re-provisioned on the rusting deck of the BRP Sierra Madre, a Philippine naval ship half-sunk into the reef in 1999. Ever since, the vessel and the marines have served to embody Manila’s claim of sovereignty over the shoal. More recently, China has tried to raise the salience of its own claim by intensively patrolling the area.

On 9 March 2014, China made a move to end the status quo at the shoal. For the first time in 15 years, Beijing stopped Manila from delivering supplies to the Sierra Madre. The Chinese Coast Guard forced two Philippine ships to turn away. Manila answered the blockade by successfully dropping food and water to the marines by air. It was then up to Manila whether to send in another supply ship or plane, and up to Beijing whether to leave it alone, chase it away, sink it, or shoot it down.

China claims that the Philippine ships were ‘loaded with construction materials’ to build up Manila’s position. Manila says the ships were merely trying to re-provision the marines ‘to improve the conditions there’, not ‘to expand or build permanent structures on the shoal’.

A dozen years ago China and the 10 ASEAN states signed a 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or DOC. The signers undertook ‘to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force’. China’s threat of force against the Philippine supply ships at Second Thomas Shoal on 9 March violated the DOC.

The long and ongoing record of unilateral Chinese assertions or aggressions in the South and East China Sea no longer leaves room for doubt as to Beijing’s intention. China wants and is trying to achieve dominance over the waters behind what it calls the ‘first island chain’ and land features that fringe the U-shaped line.

The question is not ‘what does China intend?’ The answer—dominance of some kind and degree—is known. The question is ‘what, if anything, is anyone else prepared to do?’

Neither the US nor Japan is about to go to war over competing claims in the South China Sea. Washington is now preoccupied with Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea—not to mention  fruitless American diplomacy on Iran, Israel–Palestine, and Syria. The mysterious fate of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has absorbed any leftover bandwidth of global attention. Given these distractions, China could hardly have chosen a better time to blockade the Philippine ships.

The South China Sea is the maritime heart of Southeast Asia. No set of countries is more directly impacted by what China does there. The question raised by China’s blockade is what will ASEAN do? Will it continue to ignore China’s moves? Or will it, however politely, resist them?

On 18 March, ASEAN officials and their Chinese counterparts met in Singapore at the 10th session of a Joint Working Group on the implementation of the DOC. The group has been convened periodically since 2005 to no meaningful avail. China in particular has preferred to operate on two tracks at once: engaging ASEAN in operationally futile discussions while changing, fact by fact, conditions on the water in the South China Sea.

The ASEAN states and China alike have continued to talk of someday moving from a mere DOC to a COC—an actual code of conduct in the South China Sea. But implementing the DOC, let alone transitioning to a COC, has proven chimerical. China is not the sole cause of delay; ASEAN is divided as to what, if anything, to do. But China’s strategy is clear: to use fruitless diplomacy to buy time for factual primacy, thereby ensuring that future negotiations will serve Chinese ends.

The most likely outcome of the meeting in Singapore is another restatement of faith in a double mirage on an ever-receding time horizon: eventual compliance with the DOC and the eventual existence of a COC. That said, however, some recent if modest changes in ASEAN’s rhetoric are intriguing.

In November 2013 China announced its unilateral creation of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. The zone’s reference to sea as well as air appeared to jeopardise both freedom of navigation (FON) in and freedom of overflight (FOO) above Northeast Asian waters.

One would have expected ASEAN not to comment on China’s announcement, so as not to anger Beijing and not to seem biased in favour of Tokyo or Washington, who both rejected the zone. Yet, largely unnoticed, an ASEAN–Japan summit in Tokyo on 14 December released a Joint Statement that did include a section on ‘free and safe maritime navigation and aviation’.

The 11 leaders specifically ‘agreed to enhance cooperation in ensuring the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law …’ These were barely veiled references to China’s efforts to appropriate the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and to control air traffic above the East China Sea.

Additionally, at an informal ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat held in Bagan on 17 January 2014, while no joint statement was released, according to the official summary on the ASEAN Secretariat and Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs websites, the ministers ‘expressed their concerns on the recent developments in the South China Sea. They further reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace and stability, maritime security, [and] freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea’. They were also said to have ‘urged continued self-restraint in the conduct of activities’.

The Philippines has already vowed to send more ships to resupply the Sierra Madre. Perhaps that recalcitrant stance will allow the Joint Working Group publicly to urge ‘self-restraint’ after private assurances to Beijing that the criticism is really meant for Manila. Perhaps a lively discussion of the South China Sea has taken place in Singapore.

The ASEAN states might even risk Chinese umbrage by reporting, in a summary of the event on the ASEAN Secretariat’s website, unattributed expressions of concern for unnamed risks to FON and FOO.

Has Beijing bullied itself into a box? Will China’s leaders find themselves caught in a dilemma—unable to stop blocking Philippine ships and planes for fear of appearing weak in the eyes of ultranationalists at home, yet also unable to imprison Manila’s marines in an invisible sea-air cell maintained by Chinese arms without further alienating Beijing’s Southeast Asian neighbours?

Or perhaps ASEAN will turn a blind eye, let the Filipinos fend for themselves, and thus, in its own low-key, consensual ‘ASEAN Way’, facilitate Chinese dominance of the South China Sea. There are surely some in Southeast Asia for whom that ultimate result is already a foregone conclusion.

Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum in the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This article first appeared on East Asia Forum here and is a condensed version of an article published by Asia Times Online here, and is republished with their permission (please contact Asia Times about republishing).