Erratic US policy and fraying alliances give China a free hand
SINGAPORE — Even by his outspoken standards, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s account of a conversation he had with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was startling.
During a meeting between the two leaders in Beijing in May 2017, the subject turned to whether the Philippines would seek to drill for oil in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Duterte said he was given a blunt warning by China’s president.
“[Xi’s] response to me [was], ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war,” Duterte recounted.
A year later, Duterte was asked for a response to news that China had landed long-range bombers on one of the South China Sea’s Paracel Islands — a milestone that suggests the People’s Liberation Army Air Force can easily make the short hop to most of Southeast Asia from its new airstrips. “What’s the point of questioning whether the planes there land or not?” Duterte responded.
His refusal to condemn China’s military buildup underlines China’s success in subduing its rivals in the South China Sea. Since 2013 China has expanded artificial islands and reefs in the sea and subsequently installed a network of runways, missile launchers, barracks and communications facilities.
These military advances have led many to wonder if Beijing has already established unassailable control over the disputed waters. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea and its islands – claims that are looking increasingly forlorn in the wake of China’s military buildup.
“What China is winning is de facto control of nearly the entire South China Sea, including all activities and resources in it, despite the other surrounding Southeast Asian states’ respective legal rights and entitlements under international law,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.