As the date approaches the Permanent Court of Arbitrations’ verdict, China is hoping for a bilateral deal with Philippines’ new President Rodrigo Duterte over the disputed South China Sea islands. Under the current President Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines had opposed Chinese claims and island building activities in the South China Sea and has taken the P.R.C. to court over the issue. Duterte is more skeptical of American commitments to its allies and, according to Chinese analysts, would prioritize Philippines’ economic development by working with China. However, while Durterte might be less willing to confront China in the South China Sea, it is unlikely that that there will be a rapid shift or breakthrough in the South China Sea issue as some people have feared. If China believes the new Filipino president would allow China to reach its objectives easier in the South China Sea, it is likely to be disappointed.
While the South China Sea dispute is a relatively recent affair, both China and its opponents have been dusting off ancient laws to justify their dubious claims. China has cited supposed visits by Chinese officials during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) to claim that the disputed islands belong to China. The Philippines, for its part, cited “effective jurisdiction” over the shoals and islands since its own independence from Spain in 1898. The real legal basis for China, however, is the “Nine-Dash Line”. The Nine-Dash Line is a demarcation line drawn in 1947 to formalize territorial claims in the area. The demarcation was agreed upon at Cairo and Potsdam, and it was finalized at the San Francisco Conference in 1951, when Japan formally surrendered the islands. With the collapse of KMT resistance on the Chinese mainland in 1949, the Chinese Communists inherited the claim. Due to the lack of naval presence, the P.R.C. was unable enforce its claims in the area. Similarly, the Republic of China, now based on Taiwan, also continues to claim the islands but, lacks the military strength to press its extensive claim. The ROC still maintains a garrison on Taiping/Itu Aba Island that is part of the Spratlys, and former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou was involved in a dispute with the Philippines over the legality of Taiwan’s claims in the area.
Like many leftover treaties from WWII, the Nine-Dash Line was not seriously disputed until it has become a practical problem. With decolonization, the appearance of new states, and the emergence of norms symbolized by UNCLOS in 1981, the Nine-Dash Line has been seen as a violation of international norms by many of the states in the area. The Nine-Dash Line, as it currently exists, places the Chinese maritime border, in many cases, only a few hundred miles off of the shores of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines. It gives China claims over islands that are far from the Chinese mainland. The ideas of spheres of influence, sovereign control over the high seas, shifting international alliances, and the introduction of the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone all made the Nine-Dash Line less acceptable now than it probably was in 1945. Compounding the issue is the rising strength of the P.R.C and its growing capability to project its military power in the region and enforce its claims.
The Philippines is one of the leading challengers to Chinese plans in the South China Sea. While the South China Sea dispute involves many nations with complex territorial overlaps, for the Chinese media, the Philippines has become the face of opposition to what it sees as legitimate Chinese activities in the South China Sea, supported by the shadowy hand of the United States. Therefore, China is all too happy with the softer approach that is being advocated by the present Filipino President-elect Rodrigo Duterte. During his election campaign, Duterte expressed outright skepticism regarding American commitments to defend the Philippines, as well as Philippines’ current strategy of building multilateral alliances to resist Chinese claims. Instead, Duterte favours bilateral negotiations with China, and publically announced he is willing to quietly drop the South China Sea issue if China would invest in Philippines’ economic development and infrastructure building.
For China, Duterte’s back peddling would save China from its current conundrum with international law and its court battle with the Philippines, a battle which it is likely to lose. While decisions made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration is not be legally binding, it would nevertheless undermine China’s legitimacy and expose it further to international legal attacks. China losing the arbitration would also place it in a tricky position regarding the UNCLOS itself, which is a treaty that China had signed and was used by the P.R.C. to claim territorial waters, but now it has found itself to be on the receiving end. A more cordial Philippines would rescue China from these difficulties, while also weakening the American position in Southeast Asia both militarily and legally.
But, while Duterte is appearing to back away Philippines’ confrontational stance, whether Duterte would actually do so is not certain. Like any territorial dispute, the South China Sea affair has whipped up nationalist sentiments on both sides. Duterte, being the president of a democratic nation, might find that settling the dispute with China would cost him too much domestic political capital and back away from his election promises. If that happens, it would not be the first time Duterte has backed away from and contradicted his prior statements, and also, it will not likely to be his last flip-flop.
Whatever Duterte does, though, China would continue to confront the Southeast Asian maritime states and engage in strategic rivalry with the U.S.
Chinese island building and militarization activities are unlikely to stop or slow down barring an unforeseen catastrophe to China. To China, the islands are part of a forward base that would effectively lock the United States out of South China Sea and, more importantly, break what China believes to be an ‘American containment’ that is aimed at stopping China from rising. But, China itself is only the biggest fish in a large pond that has overshadowed the smaller fishes. Philippines’ allies, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, as well as Taiwan, all have overlapping claims on one island or another in the region. Like the Nine-Dash Line itself, the world is still trying to resolve disputes left over from WWII and decolonization.
Ford, John. “Philippine Election: Duterte’s Dangerous Ideas on China.” The Diplomat, 2016-05-05 2016.
Heydarian, Richard J. “The South China Sea Moment of Truth Is Almost Here.” The National Interest, 2016-06-25 2016.
“Huang Yan Dao Shu Yu Zhong Guo Liu Da Tie Zheng.” Xinhua, 2012-05-27 2012.
“Jie Fang Jun 520 Qian Tai Hai Deng Lu Jun Yan, Jin Gang Zhi Zuan Cheng Tie Quan Tou.” In Taiwan Today, 55:31. Macau: MASTV, 2016.
“Taiwan President Visits Disputed Taiping Island in South China Sea.” The Guardian, 28.01.2016 2016.
 “Huang Yan Dao Shu Yu Zhong Guo Liu Da Tie Zheng,” Xinhua, 2012-05-27 2012.
 “Taiwan President Visits Disputed Taiping Island in South China Sea,” The Guardian, 28.01.2016 2016.
 “Jie Fang Jun 520 Qian Tai Hai Deng Lu Jun Yan, Jin Gang Zhi Zuan Cheng Tie Quan Tou,” in Taiwan Today (Macau: MASTV, 2016).
Richard J. Heydarian, “The South China Sea Moment of Truth Is Almost Here,” The National Interest, 2016-06-25 2016.
 John Ford, “Philippine Election: Duterte’s Dangerous Ideas on China,” The Diplomat, 2016-05-05 2016.
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