Despite warmer ties over the past two years, China’s maritime row with the Philippines did not escape discussion during President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Manila on November 20 and 21. It was tackled in the context of dispute management, confidence-building and the pursuit of practical cooperation, however, reaffirming both sides’ commitment to the present track. Nevertheless, while improved ties are welcome, they are no guarantee of a calmer South China Sea.
In the joint statement issued at the conclusion of the state visit, the first by a Chinese head of state in 13 years, the Philippines and China acknowledged the dispute but agreed that it is not the sum of their bilateral ties. The two countries recognised their, and Asean’s, concerted efforts to foster relative stability in the contested sea. Even a controversial memorandum of understanding for joint oil and gas exploration was reached. Both sides also expressed support for crafting an effective code of conduct.
A week before the visit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stressed the importance of achieving a code of conduct as soon as possible. However, while such a code may build confidence and manage disputes between claimants, it may not necessarily ease tensions between great powers out to project their might into the tempestuous sea.
Duterte wants China, as the biggest claimant, to demonstrate responsibility through restraint and proper behaviour. This is not the first time he has asked China to temper its actions in the South China Sea; in August, he called out China for its bellicose air warnings to routine patrols in the area. At the same time, he also recognised the increasing US-China tussle over navigational and overflight freedoms in the contested sea and how this heightens the risk of potential conflict, with grave consequences for small littoral states like the Philippines.
This highlights the inadequacy of the code of conduct in governing interaction between claimant and non-claimant states. Hence, even with Manila’s best efforts – as Asean-China country coordinator – to shepherd the conclusion of an effective code, peace and stability in the strategic maritime space may prove elusive.
Despite relative stability in the past two years, China’s artificial islands and their capabilities still raise regional anxieties. While not referenced in the Asean-China summit statement, the chairman’s statements at the 33rd Asean Summit and sixth Asean-US Summit cited “concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”. Asean and the United States also “emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint”.