The South China Sea maritime dispute continues to present nasty surprises despite the lowering of tensions since 2016. The recent Chinese push for its Belt and Road Initiative and the ongoing draft of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea has rekindled some of the old tensions and grudges that have never really gone away after the Philippines’ abrupt change of policy in the aftermath of President Rodrigo Duterte’s electoral victory in June 2016. Several incidents over the week of May 15th to May 21st have again led to talks of resumption of tensions in the region.
The first incident is Duterte’s claim on May 19th that Chinese President Xi Jinping threatened him with war if the Philippines drilled for oil in a disputed area in the South China Sea. According to the Philippines Inquirer, Xi responded to Duterte’s stated intention to drill in the disputed area with the words: “We are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you…. We want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.” Although both the Filipino and Chinese governments hastily went into damage control, claiming that neither president really had any intention of returning to hostilities, the damage of Duterte’s statements provided ammunition for Duterte’s domestic critics who argue for a more confrontational approach to the PRC in the South China Sea.
An alternative interpretation of the events is suggested by the Philippines Inquirer and some Taiwanese observers are that the entire event was made up by Duterte for domestic political purposes. Duterte may have fabricated the entire event, to present the Philippines as being boxed into a corner by the Chinese, and advocating for more aggressive by some Filipino political groups and lawmakers as dangerous warmongering. If that is true, then it is a risky strategy that has probably already backfired. The Filipino population remains suspicious of China, and several Filipino lawmakers and judges have openly called on Duterte to honour his campaign promises and adopt a harder line against Chinese territorial claims in response to the perceived provocation, including pressing the PCA arbitration ruling and engage in more joint naval exercises with the United States. Both China and the Philippines do not deny that the threat of war occurred, only that they try to portray the exchange as an effort to disuse the dispute. “Fighting Talk” on either side is more likely to inflame nationalists and raise tensions, rather than cowing them and decrease tensions.
The second point of concern that has emerged is that ongoing drafting of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea will not be legally binding. ASEAN has expected the Code to be legally binding, and the ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong-Minh has stated that the Code has to have legal power in order to work to lower tensions. From the information that is made publicly available regarding the ongoing drafting process, the Code would bar further man-made construction on the South China Sea maritime features, and discourage further “aggressive actions.” The lack of legal force behind of the agreement, however, has led to fears that the new Code would be just as ineffective as the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea of 2002 that had similar content and aspirations, but which almost all parties then proceeded to violate to various degrees.
It is unfortunate that, despite the lull in the South China Sea dispute, tensions and incidents continue to appear to threaten to undermine regional stability. It is also unfortunate that the dispute will be resolved at any time in the near future. The situation in the South China Sea will likely remain unstable, with incidents and surprises along the way.
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