Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping last week in Beijing. He is the first foreign leader hosted by China in the new year 2023, which comes in the backdrop of an exponential surge in Covid cases across the country. The three-day trip was also his first official visit to China as President after assuming office in June 2022. Both leaders have agreed to “appropriately manage differences” and resume negotiations on oil and gas exploration in the contested waters of the South China Sea that saw a halt last year. The two maritime neighbours also decided to establish a “direct communication mechanism” as part of the ongoing confidence-building measures.
Bilateral ties remain continuingly tense
Despite this bonhomie, the Philippines continues to be one of the firmest contenders of Beijing’s unlawfully overarching claims in the South China Sea under the so-called ‘Nine/Ten Dash Line’. In December 2022, Philippines’ Department of National Defense expressed “great concern” over the presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea, a crucial part of the larger South China Sea, where Beijing has its presence in. Earlier in the same year, President Macros Jr. remarked that the Philippines needs to find a way to explore oil and gas in the South China Sea even without a deal with China.
Beijing not only refuses to acknowledge Manila’s right to its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but also frequently sends it maritime militia and Coast Guard vessels closer to the Filipino waters, thereby preventing Manila from exercising its legitimate jurisdiction over the area, including harassment of Filipino fisher-folk. This has been the case for more than a decade now. Being an archipelagic nation, a substantial number of Filipino citizens depend on fishing as their source of livelihood, which has been seriously jeopardized by China’s unilateral declaration of a fishing ban in the region. In the South China Sea, Beijing has been reclaiming land, building artificial islands, and even militarizing some of them for several years now.
The contested islands and the 2016 arbitration award
The triangular-shaped Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese refer to as Huangyan Dao, fall within the Philippine EEZ. This coral reef, forming the largest atoll in the entire South China Sea, is a key bone of contention between the two countries. It lies approximately 120 nautical miles west of the largest Philippine island of Luzon. Even though there are no structures built on Scarborough Shoal, it is effectively controlled by China, which maintains a constant Coast Guard presence there since 2012.
Further west, there is a collection of two rocky islets, submerged banks, sea-mounts, and shoals, which the Chinese refer to as Zhongsha. Macclesfield Bank constitutes the main part of this set of islets. The Chinese sources consider Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal as one contiguous chain of islets, even though the latter lies further away to the southeast, closer to the Philippines. China also claims sovereignty over the other shoals, reefs and barren islands in the West Philippine Sea, and uses it as a pretext to ban Filipino fisher-folk from accessing the area around it using its maritime forces.
Being an ASEAN-member-state, the Philippines initially took the matter to the regional body, but having failed to resolve the issue, it approached the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague in 2013. Tensions began to rise rapidly since then. The court rejected Chinese territorial claims over the shoal in 2016, thus giving Manila the arbitration award, which even today Beijing refuses to honour. Both sides have been using their respective law enforcement agencies to prevent each other from engaging in activities deemed illegal by the other. But, China being the bigger power with a far more powerful navy has been asserting its claim over ninety per cent of the 3.7 million sq. km. area of the South China Sea since 2009. For Manila, the dispute with Beijing poses an existential question, as the livelihoods of its citizens remain at stake.
Efforts to mend ties under President Duterte
In the months following the arbitration award, former Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte tried to improve relations with China and continued to do so during his six years of Presidency. As an initial step towards this end, he appointed former President Fidel Ramos as a special envoy to China. Following this gesture, China lifted restrictions on the import of fruits from the Philippines that had been in effect since the unraveling of the conflict over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
President Rodrigo Duterte visited China in October 2016 and met with President Xi Jinping. Two years later, in November 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping reciprocated the visit by a trip to the Philippines, during which both the leaders signed a series of pacts on joint oil and gas development in South China Sea and also formed a joint steering committee and related working groups between their petroleum companies. He tried to promote Philippines’ economic relations with China, which came at the cost of backsliding on its traditional ties with the United States.
Challenges overlooking President Marcos Jr.
In 2019, Chinese maritime militia surrounded one of the largest islands in the Spratly archipelago and prevented the Philippine government from developing infrastructure projects on the island. Two years later, in 2021, Beijing also passed a law allowing its Coast Guard to open fire at foreign vessels in the waters it claims, if necessary. Since the arbitral award win, the Philippines lodged more than seven dozen diplomatic protests against China over its illegal fishing activities or Coast Guard presence in its waters and for preventing its oil exploration activities. All these incidents made the Sino-Philippine bilateral ties further worse.
President Marcos Jr.’s recent China trip comes two months after US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Philippines in November, where she reaffirmed Washington’s firm commitment to its long-standing security ally. Manila is a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) of the United States since 2003 and has also been historically close to the United States, particularly taking into account the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) and its related follow up agreements such as the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). However, China’s economic footprint in the Philippines has also risen in the past two decades, both in terms of bilateral trade and investment.
A series of challenges, persisting over a long time now, overlook President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the remaining years of his tenure. Before potentially going the Duterte way, he has to ensure that Philippines’ is capable of preserving its national sovereignty on its legitimate waters of the South China Sea and balancing bilateral ties with China and the US. Above all, Manila must make sure that its own citizens are not deprived of their livelihoods and the resources that rightfully belong to the Filipino people remain protected against increasing Chinese military power projection in the region.