South China Sea Dispute: U.S. Interests and Duterte's Detente (Second of Three Parts)

09.15.2016
Foreign Affairs Security Politics

The ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte could signal a shift in foreign policy strategy for the country. Duterte is considered by many observers to be much friendlier with China than his predecessor, and many in China believe that his administration will be much more willing to give favorable settlements over contested features in exchange for Chinese investment.

By Uriel N. Galace

This is the second installment in a three-part series analyzing the interests and strategies of the major countries involved in the South China Sea maritime dispute. Read part one: The Rise of China here.||Read part three: ASEAN and the Economics of Influence here.

The United States’ Grand Strategy

The Asia-Pacific region has increasingly taken on outsized strategic importance in United States (US) foreign policy. In 2015, US goods and services traded with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) totaled an estimated $659.4B, making it the US’ 2nd largest trading partner1 (the US is China’s largest trading partner). Similarly, trade in goods between the US and ASEAN exceeded $226B last year, making ASEAN the US’ 4th largest trading partner (the US is ASEAN’s 3rd largest trading partner).2 Recognizing the growing role of the Asia-Pacific in the global economy, US President Barack Obama has committed to rebalancing the country’s relationship towards the region.

However, the US’ interests in the Asia-Pacific are not purely economic. Because of China’s status as a rising superpower, the US has sought to strengthen its presence in the region as part of its “containment strategy” towards China. Although Obama has gone to great lengths to assert that the US is not trying to contain China, he has privately admitted to working “to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly, and have very much served our interest in strengthening our alliances."3 Obama’s rebalancing strategy or pivot to Asia has manifested itself in several ways.

"The US has sought to strengthen its presence in the region as part of its “containment strategy” towards China."

The most prominent manifestation is through the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), a major trade agreement involving 12 Pacific Rim countries—but notably excluding China. The TPP is viewed by the Obama administration not merely as a tool to augment commerce, but also as a means of rewriting the rules of global trade in a way that strengthens its own interests. By coming up with a trade agreement written under American principles, its signatories will be forced to tether themselves to US norms and standards, thereby strengthening American influence in the region.4

This demonstrates how the line between peace and war has become increasingly blurred. Great power competition is no longer confined to the traditional sense of armed military conflict, but has now taken on newer dimensions, such as economic, information, cyber, and cultural warfare. The costs of outright conflict between international powers has increased dramatically due to the ‘Revolution in Military Technology’ and has, in many cases, become preventatively costly. As such, states will look to assert their national prerogatives outside of the battlefield. In many ways, this is exactly what is happening at present between the US and China. The US has used the TPP to isolate and contain the influence of China, while at the same time, strengthening its own position, thereby solidifying its standing in the international economic system.

Another manifestation of this pivot is the expanded US military presence in the Asia-Pacific. The US has worked to strengthen its existing treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, while maintaining its alliance with Thailand.5 It has also conducted joint military exercises with or deployed ships to Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. In doing so, the US has enhanced its defense posture in the region and prioritized Asia for its most advanced military capabilities.6

One thing worth noting about these developments is that the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the US and Japan is clear and unambiguous. Obama has stated that the disputed Senkaku Islands on the East China Sea falls under the scope of the MDT, and that military action by China on these islands would activate the treaty. In sharp contrast, the MDT between the US and the Philippines is much more ambiguous. Although Obama had famously declared that the US’ commitment to defend the Philippines is “ironclad,”7 he has deflected questions over whether the Spratlys Islands falls within its scope. This has prompted many observers to doubt the sincerity of the US’ commitment to the Philippines, wondering aloud whether the US would really risk harming its bilateral relations with one of its biggest trading partners in order to defend a smaller ally. As Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University puts it, “We have to be very brutally honest that America's commitment to [the Philippines] is very wishy-washy. It's not very clear whether the Americans are really committed to help [the Philippines] if there will be a confrontation over Scarborough Shoal or other claimed features within the Philippines' [Exclusive Econonomic Zone]."8

In summary, the US has profited enormously from its trade and business investments in the Asia-Pacific region; thus, it has a strong incentive to maintain peace and freedom of navigation in the East and South China Seas. Consequently, its rebalancing strategy towards Asia—as manifested by the TPP and its increased military presence in the Asia-Pacific, among others—accomplishes its threefold goal of containing China’s rise, protecting its allies in the region, and upholding its economic interests. Ultimately, the US believes that the Asia-Pacific holds the key to the future of the international economy, and its underlying goal is to ensure that it preserves its status in the region as the global hegemon.

The Philippines’ Grand Strategy

In 2012, a major incident occurred between the Philippines and China that served to significantly undermine the bilateral relationship between the two countries. This incident shone the media spotlight on the maritime dispute and brought the Spratlys issue into the mainstream of public consciousness.

On April 8, 2012, a surveillance plane from the Philippine Navy caught eight Chinese fishing boats fishing in Scarborough Shoal, a disputed territory 123 miles west of Subic Bay in Zambales, Philippines. This caused the Philippine Navy to deploy its largest warship, BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, to the area. Filipino sailors from the warship conducted a surprise raid on the Chinese vessels and discovered significant amounts of illegally harvested coral, giant clams, and live sharks, prompting them to arrest the Chinese fishermen. This arrest triggered a major outcry in China, inciting the latter to deploy two surveillance ships to the area, which positioned themselves between the Philippine warship and the Chinese fishing boats to prevent further arrests of the Chinese fishermen. A standoff ensued.9 10

On June 16, 2012, after a nearly three-month long standoff, then President Benigno Aquino III ordered all Philippine vessels to withdraw from the area due to bad weather,11 anticipating China would do the same. However, China chose to retain its maritime vessels in Scarborough Shoal and even deployed more surveillance ships to the area, putting the shoal under de facto Chinese control. Since then, the PRC has prevented both Filipino and Chinese fishermen from accessing the shoal’s lagoon.

This incident prompted major backlash in both countries, triggering a series of riots, anti-Chinese and anti-Filipino protests, cyber attacks, suspensions of tourism visits, and calls to boycott the products of each other’s countries. On January 22, 2013, less than a year since the incident, the Philippines initiated arbitral proceedings against China at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague in an attempt to resolve the maritime dispute once and for all.

Jay Batongbacal, a law professor from the University of the Philippines, summarizes the Philippines’ case as follows:12

  • China’s nine-dash line—the demarcation line used by China to outline the scope of its territorial claims in the South China Sea—is far in excess of what has been agreed upon by the international community in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and is therefore illegal.
  • China’s occupation of eight territories in the South China Sea, namely, Fiery Cross Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Subi Reef, McKennan Reef, Johnson South Reef, Gaven Reef, Mischief Reef, and Scarborough Shoal, is illegal, because under UNCLOS, they do not generate an entitlement to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf.
  • China has unlawfully claimed rights or entitlements to, and exploited the resources within, the Philippines’ EEZ, while preventing the latter from doing so.

On July 12, 2016, the tribunal in The Hague affirmed the Philippines’ case, invalidating China’s nine-dash line, rejecting China’s claim that it had historic rights over most of the South China Sea, and asserting that China had violated international law by causing harm to the marine environment.13 The victory was a sweeping one for the Philippines and went even further than what many analysts had predicted. China, which had publicly boycotted the proceedings, promptly rejected the decision, with former senior Chinese official Dai Bingguo famously calling it little more than “waste paper."14

"The ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency could signal a shift in foreign policy strategy for the country."

Up until this point, the Philippines under Aquino had been considered by analysts—along with Vietnam—as one of the “hawks” in the Spratlys dispute—a country that was much more assertive in pressing its claims in the South China Sea compared with other claimants.15 However, the ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency could signal a shift in foreign policy strategy for the country. Duterte is considered by many observers to be much friendlier with China than his predecessor, and many in China believe that his administration will be much more willing to give favorable settlements over contested features in the disputed islands in exchange for Chinese investment in infrastructure, particularly in Mindanao.16

Immediately after The Hague ruling came out, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. called for Filipinos to exercise “restraint and sobriety,"17 knowing full well how important it was not to antagonize China during that sensitive period. Shortly thereafter, Duterte appointed Former President Fidel Ramos as special envoy to China to kickstart bilateral negotiations. Ramos then visited Hong Kong to serve as an “ice breaker” between the two sides. During his trip, he and his delegation never once mentioned The Hague ruling to China, instead choosing to focus on areas of cooperation. These areas include, among others: fishing, where the Philippines hopes to restore fishing access for Filipino fishermen in areas presently controlled by China; tourism, where the Philippines seeks to remove China’s travel notice on the Philippines and ease visa requirements on both sides; and anti-drug / anti-smuggling / anti-trafficking measures, where the two countries would work together to prevent crime across their borders.

The thinking behind these informal negotiations appears to be that if the Philippines and China can find common ground on smaller things, it would build confidence and instill trust between the two sides, thereby making it easier for them to cooperate on bigger issues down the road. In all likelihood, these talks are being conducted with the understanding that the question of which country possesses sovereignty over specific islands is one that cannot be resolved in the immediate future, and that the best course of action at present would be to put the issue aside and focus instead on areas that the two countries can agree upon.

Since Ramos’ trip to Hong Kong, he has been invited by Chinese officials to Beijing to hold formal negotiations, which will likely be accomplished in the next month, in potential preparation for a state trip to Beijing by Duterte before the yearend. However, even with the G20 in Hangzhou and the East Asia (ASEAN +8) Summit in Vientiane, Laos just concluded, intelligence reports of a much increased PRC presence around Scarborough Shoal have raised concerns that Beijing may not be pursuing the bilateral track in good faith.18

In sum, the Philippines’ primary interest in this dispute is to uphold its territorial sovereignty in Scarborough Shoal and the Kalayaan Island Group off the coast of Palawan, while at the same time, seeing to it that it does not antagonize its regional neighbors and trigger a war that it is likely to lose without US support. As such, its strategy for achieving this has been to walk a delicate tightrope between supporting its ally, the US, while at the same time, mollifying its neighbor, China. The Duterte administration hopes that by playing this game of balancing its relations with the US and China, and seeking out potential areas of cooperation with the latter, it can put off the sensitive issue of who holds sovereignty over the disputed islands for future generations to solve and eventually rebuild its relationship with China—all while still retaining the support of the US.

This is the second installment in a three-part series analyzing the interests and strategies of the major countries involved in the Spratlys dispute. Read part one: The Rise of China here.||Read part three: ASEAN and the Economics of Influence here.

FOOTNOTES

1

"The People's Republic Of China". Office of the United States Trade Representative. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

2

"FACT SHEET: Unprecedented U.S.-ASEAN Relations". The White House. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

3

Panda, Ankit. "How Obama Sees Asia". The Diplomat. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

4

Ibid.

5

FACT SHEET: Advancing The Rebalance To Asia And The Pacific". whitehouse.gov. N.p., 2015. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

6

Ibid.

7

Doronila, Amando. "Is Obama Pledge Really Ironclad?". Philippine Daily Inquirer. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

8

Heydarian, Richard Javad. Interview On The Spratlys Dispute. 2016. By Telephone.

9

"Scarborough Shoal Standoff: A Timeline". INQUIRER.net. N.p., 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

10

"TIMELINE: The Philippines-China Maritime Dispute". Rappler.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

11

"Aquino Orders Pullout Of PHL Ships From Panatag Shoal Due To Bad Weather". GMA News Online. N.p., 2016. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

12

Batongbacal, Jay. "Arbitration 101: Philippines V. China". Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. N.p., 2015. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

13

Perlez, Jane. "Tribunal Rejects Beijing’S Claims In South China Sea". The New York Times. N.p., 2016. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.

14

Ibid.

15

Heydarian, Richard Javad. Interview On The Spratlys Dispute. 2016. By Telephone.

16

Ibid.

17

Ibid.

18

"PH Concerned Over Chinese Boats Near Scarborough Shoal". INQUIRER.net. N.p., 2016. Web. 5 Sept. 2016.

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