The Third Goal: Balancing Regional Justice And Peace In The South China Sea Dispute

The Philippines has recently raised concern regarding the “alarming” presence of Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, an area where the two countries have been embroiled in a territorial dispute for decades. In specific, the Philippine military discovered three China Coast Guard ships and two Chinese navy vessels at Sabina Shoal, which falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The frequent encounter of Chinese vessels in the region indicates a concerning normalization of China’s protection of power in its geopolitical sphere.

In reference to the bilateral exchange, on July 5th, Philippine authorities expressed dissatisfaction with the China Coast Guard’s “dangerous maneuvers” against Filipino vessels. Ariel Coloma, the spokesperson for the Western Command, asserted that “China must cease its swarming of vessels to respect our sovereign rights.”

With the 2022-elected President Bongbong Marcos’ efforts to reconcile the Philippines with the United States, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin contacted the Philippines’ Secretary of National Defense Gilbert Teodoro to re-affirm the country’s “ironclad” commitments to protecting its allies in the Indo-Pacific region, which has become increasingly strategic due to China’s rising influence. Rhetorical warnings, like the ones mentioned, have been the most frequently used approach in dealing with the territorial dispute. The most notable event, which strengthens the Philippines’ rhetorical justifications, is the 2016 arbitration case Philippines v. China, which determined that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are invalid. It is China’s continuous disregard for this ruling which results in the ongoing territorial dispute.

Beyond rhetoric, a series of back-and-forth exchanges have taken a more tangible approach. The most common include smaller-scale provocations similar to the most recent (as of May 2023), an installation of navigation buoys. The Philippine Coast Guard installed five navigation buoys in the Whitsun Reef of the Spratly Islands, which China retaliated to when its Ministry of Transport announced the placement of three navigation beacons near the Spratlys’ Irving, Whitsun, and Gaven Reefs. Xu Liping, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explained in an article for the Global Times that the installation of these beacons signifies China’s “determination to stabilize the situation” in the Sea. 

The article takes a step back and argues that in order to assess the current approaches to the tension, it is important to determine the ultimate goal of the territorial dispute – whether it is to achieve regional justice, maintain regional peace, or both. If the goal is to achieve regional justice – in this article, a definition oversimplified as enforcement for the 2016 arbitration case – the persisting problem would be the lack of enforceability of legal or normative constraints through rhetorical or smaller-scale exchanges. Even relatively more tangible approaches – such as the installation of navigation buoys – have limited impact in the larger context of the territorial dispute. They do not alter the dynamics of the bilateral tension, therefore unproductive in moving toward the solution. From this perspective, more concrete, materialist projections of power appear to be more effective approaches. This includes the construction of artificial islands and sending of navy or fishing vessels, as the China Coast Guard has often been caught doing. These actions’ military implication makes them more concrete than rhetorical or smaller-scale exchanges.

Alternatively, if the goal is to maintain regional peace, Xu’s criticism would be regarding the lack of international efforts to present normative pressure, thereby addressing the materialistic approaches which further destabilize regional security.

Both of the approaches suggested above appear extreme because, as this article argues, the goal of the territorial dispute is not merely regional justice nor peace, but rather a balance between both. Former Philippine Congressman Walden Bello comments that he dislikes the ineffectiveness of the rhetorical or smaller-scale exchanges, but at the same time is relieved that the exchanges have remained “some sort of a harmless chess game.” Finding a solution to this goal is less straightforward because of the seemingly contradictory nature of approaches toward regional justice and peace.

Such a balance is also necessary because of another criticism I wish to highlight – the Sino-Philippine South China Sea dispute is mainly assessed in isolation from the broader geopolitical sphere, which hinders the development of more comprehensive, co-ordinated approaches. It should be understood that territorial disputes are not exclusive to China. Even within the South China Sea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei have all made respective territorial claims. The breaching of international law is similarly not exclusive to China. Taiwan also refuses to acknowledge the 2016 arbitration case.

This understanding, of course, should not be taken as justification for China’s wrongful, aggressive approach to the territorial dispute. Nonetheless, discussion of how to deal with China should be situated in the broader concern surrounding the country’s rise in the international order. For example, Yao Cheng, a former lieutenant colonel of the Chinese Naval Command, remarks, “The Chinese Communist Party can’t fight Taiwan now, and it has no way to confront Japan [and other countries] militarily, but it must fight the Philippines,” going on to explain that “if it doesn’t, the neighboring countries in the South China Sea will (follow the Philippines’ example) and rely on the U.S.”

In other words, the South China Sea dispute is a part of the localization of China’s protection of power, at least in the realm of security – especially compared to the U.S. This is exemplified by the vast disparity between the United States’ 750 overseas military bases and China’s singular base in Djibouti. We need to shift the paradigm we’ve been using in order to comprehend the significance of this territorial dispute in the context of China’s self-perceived role in international relations.

While China’s security influence may expand in the future, understanding the country’s need to grasp geopolitical control helps in comprehending its assertiveness and corresponding investment in the territorial dispute. This understanding provides a context for balancing regional justice and regional peace, considering the extent to which a materialistic approach would provoke China and the effectiveness of rhetorical pressure in addressing the issue.