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The Philippines Is Forcing China To Limit Its Aggressive Maritime Expansion

AUG 29, 2017 @ 06:00 AM2,251 

Ralph Jennings ,  



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The difference in military might between China and the Philippines is so great it’s hardly worth a breakdown. China runs the world’s third strongest military, according to the database, while the Philippines ranks No. 50. But the Southeast Asian archipelago is showing China, case by case, how far it can go in a decade-old effort to control a giant disputed sea where it is one of five claimants to the area.

That's not easy, as China has seldom wavered since 2010 in passing ships and militarizing islets in waters the other countries call their own. The Philippines is resisting China through an oddly viable combination of friendly diplomacy, Southeast Asian leadership and passive but pervasive anti-Beijing public sentiment. Let's examine three of these cases.

Pressure Points

First, China was apparently active in the Philippine-controlled part of the Spratly Islands earlier this month. A Philippine legislator and chief justice accused China of occupying a Spratly feature known as Sandy Cay. Their finger-pointing prompted the Philippine government to reject any evidence of occupation. That back-and-forth, regardless of what happened at Sandy Cay, has probably put off whatever Beijing was up to, says Eduardo Araral, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “They might need to slow down on what they’re doing,” he says, adding that it's unclear what that was. “I see no reason China would eliminate a hard-won friend.”

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China’s persistence specifically would rile the Philippine public, challenging PresidentRodrigo Duterte’s effort to get along with China after maritime issues spawned overt hostilities from 2012 to early 2016. Beijing sees the Philippine relationship as a way of proving it can handle the South China Sea issue head on with other claimants, not through outsiders such as the world court of U.S. government. In return, Manila gets Chinese investment and development aid.

A protester holds a sign in Metro Manila saying 'Benham Rise is Philippine territory!' in front of the Chinese Consulate to protest Duterte's perceived closeness to China, on March 24, 2017 (Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)

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China had already been stung in March, when Philippine media reported that Duterte knewChinese research vessels had parked in 2016 at Benham Rise in a Philippine-controlled tract of the Pacific Ocean. That’s the second case. After backing down from a bit of bluster, Duterte didn’t push back against China aside from a pledge to shore up existing Philippine Spratly Island claims.

Staying Onside

China in turn said little. They stayed friends. Then on April 10 the foreign ministry in Beijing said it would make “suitable arrangements” for Philippine fishing boats that want access to Scarborough Shoal, a disputed fishery-rich feature under Chinese control in the South China Sea. China instead could have kept barring access as it had since 2012 or built on the shoal itself.

Its earlier activity at the shoal prompted the Philippines to file for world court arbitration in 2013. Last year the tribunal rejectedChina’s legal basis for claims to about 90% of the whole 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. According a survey in May by Metro Manila-based research institute Social Weather Stations, 38% of Filipinos still distrust China and 34% trust it. China probably knows it needs to satisfy Filipino voters in the long haul, meaning don’t mess with the vast but often hard-luck Philippine fishing industry.

ASEAN Influence

And a case showing how Philippine leadership radiates to the greater South China Sea: Duterte’s government is leading the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year. Given the friendship with Beijing, ASEAN under Duterte is unlikely to criticize China’s maritime activities. That’s what China needs to work with the Southeast Asian group, which includes rival maritime claimants Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Suddenly, foreign ministers from ASEAN and China agreed to a code of conduct frameworkAug. 6 to head off mishaps at sea.

China had resisted over much of the time since the code idea was hatched in 2002. China can always get tougher as the actual code is crafted but will find it hard to back out completely without letting down Manila. “There is a political cost to killing the process from the Chinese as well as ASEAN,” says Collin Koh, research fellow with the Maritime Security Program at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore.

Moral is, China will be boxed in at sea as long as it values relations with the Philippines


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