Territorial Disputes Over South China Sea Intensifies

During a flag-raising ceremony at the Department of Foreign Affairs on May 28th, Philippines’ Foreign Minister Peter Cayetano relayed to the public President Duterte’s assertion that “if anyone gets the natural resources in the Western Philippines Sea, South China Sea (SCS), [Duterte] will go to war.” The threat comes as a response to China’s recent attempt at extracting oil and gas from the SCS. The two countries have ongoing negotiations outlining “red lines” they cannot cross with regards to the usage of raw materials in that area. For China, the Philippines has called for a ban on unilateral mining of natural resources and for both parties there is to be no new occupation of uninhabited areas.

Duterte made his proclamation amidst rising tensions in the recent weeks after the Chinese military landed long-range bombers on its artificial islands in the SCS. The bombs are reportedly nuclear-capable with a 3500 km radial impact. If deployed from Woody Island, the entirety of Southeast Asia would fall comfortably within this danger zone. As a response, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson countered, “The islands in the South China Sea are China’s territory… The relevant military activities are normal training and other parties shouldn’t over-interpret them… What we do is fundamentally different from the U.S. sending its military aircrafts and warships from thousands of miles away to this region and posing a threat to other countries.”

Cayetano states that China is aware of these red lines, seeming to continuously neglect them. Over the years they have built artificial islands for the purpose of installing radar facilities and airstrips to reinforce its claims on SCS lands. As a result, the Filipinos have accused its current president of being too lenient. When surveyed 84% of them want their leader to take a greater stand in protecting their territorial rights and in demanding compliance from President Xi Jinping’s nation.

The history of territorial disputes over that land is seen not only between the Philippines and China but also countries such as Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The area is rich in resources with seven billion barrels of oil reserves in the Scarborough Shoal. In a case brought by the Philippines to a 2016 international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the court ruled that most of Beijing’s claims in the SCS – particularly the raw materials within the “nine-dash line” – are illegal under global maritime law. The court upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights to exploit resources off its western coast.

The U.S. Navy responded to these events by sailing two warships within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the SCS in order to oversee the situation. In 2015, President Xi Jinping told President Obama that his nation would not pursue militarization. Skepticism about their declaration has carried on into the Trump administration who said that growing militarization will provoke “near-term and long-term consequences.” Positive impact of U.S. involvement remains doubtful as Duterte has tried to estrange Manila from Washington since taking office, aligning Philippine foreign policy towards increasing economic affairs with the Chinese instead.

The future of the SCS dispute is unforeseeable, especially because of the Duterte’s ever-changing foreign policy towards China and America. Without the close relations once maintained with the U.S. in conjunction to the failure to address the European Parliament’s call for an investigation into Duterte’s extralegal killings in his war on drugs, the Philippines is set to become increasingly dependent on Jinping’s country. This further complicates the issue as economic dependence on the opposition will invalidate any claims they have to the West Philippine Sea. If at least one thing may be properly inferred, it would be that usage of fear mongering tactics, the absence of sound policies, isolationism and deliberately ignoring international norms, will likely have negative consequences for Manila in this territorial dispute.

Sofia Lopez