Neither a bang nor a whimper

Two major incidents in the South China Sea last week.

On Tuesday, the CSIS’ Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative reported China’s new point-defense fortifications on its artificial islands in the Spratlys. Then on Friday, news broke of a Chinese ship illegally seizing a US Navy underwater probe in Philippine waters.


Chinese installations on Johnson Reef, care of the CSIS/AMTI report.

A lot of the ensuing analysis has focused on the US response and these events’ implications for US-China relations. That’s understandable, considering the US’ Asia pivot and the friction arising from territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But it’s exactly because of those disputes that I’m driven to examine what these events might mean for the Philippines, which—despite recent walk-backs of our stance on China—remains a claimant to these contested areas.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay recently declared that the Philippines will not stop Chinese construction on these islands. He also insisted that other nations concerned by these new developments can deal with China on their own. To wit:

“There are other countries that will have special concerns insofar as these activities of China are concerned. Such as… the right to the freedom of navigation that they would like to protect and overflight operations – the United States is concerned about this, Japan is concerned about this, the European Union is concerned about this […] Let them take whatever action is necessary in the pursuit of their national interest… and we will leave it at that, for the Philippines, we have our bilateral engagements with China.”

I see some worrying implications from Sec. Yasay’s response, and I’ll try to go into those one by one.

First, it’s important to look at how China asserts its claims in the South China Sea. The prevailing strategy seems to be a push for de facto legitimacy. Perhaps to reduce space for contest, China mainly stakes its claims through practice: however shaky the concept of Chinese sovereignty over the Spratlys (and other territories) might be, China makes that notion “real” by acting as if it already is.

Infrastructure and personnel deployments, of which these installations are just the newest example, form the primary pillars for China’s territorial claims. (In a way, the claims are their own “proof.”) By leaving these new installations unchallenged, we’re giving China free rein in the main avenue it uses to validate its claims: practice, and the situation on the ground. China gains greater control over territories in all but name. Remember that this is the country that refused to participate in proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and later rejected that court’s rulings. It’s safe to assume that “name” is a secondary consideration for China here.

If international opposition or rebuke does not involve substantial effects on its actual control over these islands, or on its global standing more generally, then it seems China will not be deterred.

Second: Global standing is key. The Philippines is clearly disadvantaged in these disputes. (This is also why I’m skeptical of bilateral talks as a means of resolution.) One of the few things we can leverage against China is its status on the international stage: its credibility, and any effects that a blow to its reputation might have on relations with key foreign entities. Those are the only levers we can pull that have real impact on China’s economic, military, diplomatic capacities. (Hence the missed opportunity that is the PCA ruling, I think, but that’s a different point.)

The South China Sea disputes involve many other states. By taking the lead—notably in the PCA case—the Philippines adds weight to its own claims and puts itself in a better position to influence how regional (and even global) powers approach China. International cooperation makes the Philippines a bigger player in these disputes than it could realistically be otherwise.

By leaving other concerned states to deal with China by themselves, we signal an aversion to joint responses or multilateral approaches for these disputes. This weakens diplomacy-based support for our own claims.

That brings me to my third point: Secretary Yasay’s statements are troubling in light of other recent shifts in Philippine foreign policy. Just a week ago, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the Philippines would “very likely” stop aiding US freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. (There are many problems with US-Philippine military relations, but those are for a different post altogether.) It’s worth noting that the US was our foremost military partner for decades. With China far outstripping us in naval capabilities, the bulk of whatever armed presence we can assert in the South China Sea stems from US partnerships.

As Secretary Yasay keeps reminding us, we’ve already put the PCA ruling “on the back burner,” watering down the legal buttresses of our position. Cutting off any involvement with US patrols in the South China Sea signals a retreat from our own claims on yet another front.

Secretary Yasay notes that objecting to these very real developments will do harm, whereas there’s nothing to be lost by keeping silent. Diplomatic rules of thumb generally agree, and we don’t have the military capabilities to pose credible challenges in the sphere that China’s claims are working in (i.e., reality on the ground). But silence disregards and undermines our capacity for opposition in the spheres that our claims work in: legal, diplomatic, conceptual. Any declarations we make about defending our claims hold no water when we’ve already ceded them in practice.

Besides, Secretary Yasay’s assurances that we will “pursue peaceful means at which all of this can be prevented” are belied by his own declaration that the Philippines will refrain from calling or issuing a note verbale regarding these developments. This silence, we are led to believe, will lead to warmer bilateral relations between the Philippines and China.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Defense Ministry justifies its new military installations by reminding everyone that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha [Spratly] islands and its adjacent waters.” Xinhua reports that China’s seizure of a US naval probe in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—well beyond even China’s problematic nine-dash line—occurred “in its [China’s] waters.”

China seems confident in its ability to assert power even within clear-cut Philippine boundaries. Whatever “good relations” are being built between China and the Philippines seem to come at the price of surrendering any credible opposition we might stake against China’s claims in our territories.

Secretary Yasay notes that “we can later on go back into the issue of our dispute with the South China Sea,” once relations have improved. At the rate things are going, those discussions will be moot and academic.