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July 25, 2024

Philippines-China’s Turbulent Ties

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By: Aidamol Joseph, Research Analyst, GSDN

China & Philippines: source Internet

Throughout their many decades together, relations between China and Philippines have generally been friendly and cordial. Nonetheless, intense problems in both nations have recently caused them to “cool off”, reaching a low point since their diplomatic relations were established in 9 June 1975. China’s determination to assert its disputed sovereignty over the entirely of the vast South China Sea has sparked increasing clashes with its neighbors in recent years, particularly the Philippines.

China and Taiwan border the South China Sea on the north, the Indo-Chinese peninsula (which includes Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore) on the west, Indonesia and Brunei on the south, and the Philippines (also known as West Philippine Sea) on the east. It is connected to the East China Sea (both marginal seas of the Pacific Ocean) by the Taiwan Strait and the Luzon Strait. In 2016, trade across the South China Sea was valued at over USD 3.37 trillion, making it an essential global commercial route. 60% of all trade travels via Asia, and one third of all shipping passes through the South China Sea, according to the Center for Strategic and international Studies (CSIS), which estimates that 80% of trade worldwide is carried by sea by volume and 70% by value.  Millions of people rely on this sea’s abundant fishing grounds for their food security and means of subsistence.

Tensions between the Philippines and China have escalated over the last two years, mainly over two disputed territories: Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands. The former is about 120 nautical miles (222 km) west of the Philippine Island of Luzon and is considered a part of the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Spratly islands are a group of over 100 islands and reefs, and while the Philippines claims some parts, China lays claim to the entire archipelago. China calls the Scarborough Shoal ‘Huangyan Dao’ while the Philippino name for it is ‘Pantang Shoal’ or ‘Bajo de Masinloc’.

The root causes of the tensions lies in the contested claims over the South China Sea, with China asserting nearly all of the region. In 2012, China seized Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, defying a favorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration. On 22 January 2013, the Republic of the Philippines instituted arbitral proceedings against the People’s Republic of China under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The arbitration concerned the role of historic rights and the source of maritime entitlements in the South China Sea, the status of certain maritime features in the South China Sea, and the lawfulness of certain actions by China in the South China Sea that the Philippines alleged to be in violation of the convention. China adopted a position of non-acceptance and non-participation in the proceedings. The Permanent Court of Arbitration served as Registry in this arbitration.

China lays claim to nearly all of the Soth China Sea, including the Paracel Islands. Its “nine dash line” claim encompasses up to 90% of the sea, leading to tensions as it has expanded islands and built military installations to reinforce control, especially in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The line comprises nine dashes which extends hundreds of miles south and east from its most southernly province of Hainan. In 1947, China issued a map detailing its claims, and insists history backs up its claims- Beijing says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly Island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation. These claims are mirrored by Taiwan. However, critics say China has not been specific about what exactly its claim includes, and that the nine dash line that appears on Chinese maps encompassing almost the entirety of the South China Sea includes no coordinates.

However, in recent months, there has been a rapid increase in tensions between Beijing and Manila. The main focus of it is a dilapidated ship on Second Thomas Shoal that the Philippines intentionally left stranded to strengthen their claim to the shoal. Conflicts have arisen recently when Chinese Coast Guard ships have fired water cannons at Philippine resupply boats, forcing Philippino sailors to be injured and causing damage to the ships. The Philippine forces were trying to replenish the forces on board.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) took harmful measures against legitimate Philippine maritime operations in the South China Sea on 23 March 2024, and the United States supports its ally, the Philippines. Resupply vessel suffered major damage that rendered it immobile, and Filipino service members were injured as a result of PRC ships’ frequent use of water cannons and careless blocking tactics. By its actions, the PRC stops regular staff rotations and denies basic supplies to Filipino service members stationed at Second Thomas Shoal. The PRC has repeatedly interfered with Philippine vessels’ ability to exercise their right to freedom of travel at sea and to cut off supplies to this long-standing outpost; this event is just the most recent example of this.

The PRC’s activities exhibit a blatant disdain for international law and destabilize the region. The legally binding ruling of an international tribunal rendered in July 2016 states that Second Thomas Shoal is a low tide feature that is unquestionably within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and that the PRC has no legitimate maritime claims to the waters surrounding it. The United States urges on the PRC to comply by the ruling and stop its risky and destabilizing behavior. The 2016 arbitral decision is final and legally binding on the PRC and the Philippines, as stipulated under the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982. The United States reiterates that any armed action against Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft, including Coast Guard aircraft, anywhere in the South China Sea is covered by Article IV of the 1951 U.S-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

The tensions of the region are echoing in other parts of the world also. Germany has volunteered to arbitrate the conflict if it comes to that. When meeting with Ferdinand Macros Jr, Germany’s Federal Minister for Foreign affairs Annalena Baerbock offered her assistance in reducing tensions between China and Philippines. They emphasized the importance of establishing a peaceful dispute resolution framework and encouraging communication. On January 05, 2024 the US, Japan and the Republic of Korea convened a trilateral Indo-Pacific dialogue. During the discussion, the three nations expressed worry about China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. A series of naval drills in the area have been conducted by China, the US and the Philippines as a result go the events. The US and Philippine Navy ended their cooperative exercises in the South China Sea in January 2024. The coordinated patrol was allegedly being shadowed by the Chinese ships. China launched a second military drill in the area shortly after January 04, 2024 and the Peoples Liberation Army Southern Theatre Command referred to it as a “routine” exercise.

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and US President Joe Biden jointly released a “Joint Vision Statement” on April 12, 2024 outlining a series of economic and defense cooperation initiatives, while slamming China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.”

As hostilities in South China Sea worsen, India has promised to stand behind the Philippines. At a news conference in Manila, External Affairs Minister S. Jayashankar reiterated India’s commitment to supporting the Philippines in preserving freedom and peace in the Indo-Pacific region. He emphasized the need for closer cooperation between India and the Philippine to shape the emerging model in the changing world. India and Philippines formally established diplomatic relations on 26 November 1949. This milestone marks a transformative partnership between the two nations.

Witnessing the multiple clashes between the two countries, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers on 30 December 2023 released a statement on “Maintaining and Promoting Stability in the Maritime Sphere in the Southeast Asia. According to President Macros, the situation in the area has become “more dire”, and in order to keep the peace, the Philippines would need to work with its neighbors and allies. China is critical of the Philippines attempts and said that the Philippines should not become an “offbeat case” and that any separate “code” without China is unlikely to have recognition from ASEAN countries.

China says the Philippines ignored proposals it put forward to manage their dispute in the South China Sea. Philippines President Ferdinand Macros Jr said they did not reject the deal, but said it stood on a “questionable” premise. He added that China’s claims were not recognized by any country, certainly not by the Philippines.

Relations between China and the Philippines are heating up once more. Because it is the first island chain, the Philippines has a particularly important geostrategic location. Conflict in the area might arise if the Philippines erects a permanent building on the Shoal. This could therefore have an impact on the South China Sea’s regional stability in the absence of code of conduct. Owing to the region’s instability, a single calculation error could trigger a major chaos.

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