Philippines Maneuvers Regional Dynamics in the Shadow of South China Sea Tensions

Security specialists caution that China may react unfavourably to efforts perceived as “ganging up” on it, particularly after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s recent announcement of engaging Vietnam, Malaysia, and other nations in discussions for their “own” code of conduct (COC).

The Philippines is at risk of damaging its relationship with Beijing and disrupting discussions on a broader South China Sea code of conduct by seeking an independent set of rules for the contested region with other claimant states, analysts suggest.

Security specialists caution that China may react unfavourably to efforts perceived as “ganging up” on it, particularly after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s recent announcement of engaging Vietnam, Malaysia, and other nations in discussions for their “own” code of conduct (COC).

For over two decades, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been collaborating on a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. However, progress has been sluggish, despite commitments from all involved parties to promote and expedite the process.

Philippines- China Relations

Recent Philippines-China relations have been largely defined by territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea, escalating since the naval standoff in April 2012 over Scarborough Shoal. Tensions heightened due to concerns about Chinese illegal occupation, unauthorized infrastructure development, and incidents of incursions within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Bilateral relations took a downturn when the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China in January 2013, challenging the legality of China’s nine-dash line claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

While territorial disputes have been a focal point, they shouldn’t impede cooperation in other areas. Despite the challenges, the extensive and comprehensive ties between the Philippines and China should encourage collaboration in various aspects for mutual benefit.

In recent months, tensions have escalated in China-Philippines relations, marked by naval confrontations involving vessels from both nations, including two collisions near the contested Second Thomas Shoal in October. Strained ties between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea have intensified under the leadership of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who is shifting towards stronger connections with the U.S. The United States is backing the Southeast Asian nation in its maritime disputes with China.

In recent months, the two nations have experienced numerous confrontations in the South China Sea, particularly in the vicinity of the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, which is part of the Spratly Islands.

The Philippines has delivered provisions to military personnel stationed on an ageing World War II-era transport ship used as an outpost on the shoal. This has led to repeated deployments of Chinese coast guard vessels attempting to block the resupply missions. China asserts sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, encompassing parts of the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2016 that China’s claims had no legal basis.

China’s Aggression in The South-China Sea and its Impact

From using lasers on Philippine ships in February to employing water cannons over the weekend, China continues to test the boundaries of aggression in disputed waters like the South China Sea. Despite a 2016 ruling by a U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague invalidating Beijing’s expansive claims to the South China Sea, Chinese ships persist in aggressive actions such as firing lasers, using water cannons, and engaging in close-in manoeuvres to assert territorial dominance. Although these actions have drawn strong condemnation from affected countries and their allies, China defends them as legal and essential for protecting its interests.

According to experts, China seems to be provoking a military reaction from rival claimants in the South China Sea or their allies. This strategy could potentially justify a more hazardous but legally defensible use of force on China’s part. However, none of the concerned nations have engaged in military conflict with China over the matter thus far. The Philippines has consistently pursued diplomatic channels to address its concerns, including summoning the Chinese ambassador following an incident on Monday. Despite efforts to avoid military escalation, analysts suggest that China is testing the limits of its actions and is unlikely to cease its provocative behaviour toward neighbouring countries.

Philippines International Relations

In the Philippines, the ongoing discussions in foreign and defence policy predominantly revolve around topics related to the South China Sea and cross-strait relations. These issues remain central to the strategic considerations and security perspectives of Filipino national security authorities. The focus is primarily directed towards the northern and western approaches of the country. These deliberations play a significant role in public forums and Congressional talks concerning financial allocations and assistance for maritime agencies, especially the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy, with China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea significantly influencing these discussions.

It is crucial to emphasize that the national security landscape of the Philippines is not solely a product of domestic factors but is progressively influenced by the global and regional dynamics that impact the stability of the Indo-Pacific region of which it is a part.

The Philippines cannot simply rely on a national security framework; it must actively envision and strive for a regional security perspective. Acknowledging in its policy documents that global challenges cannot be addressed by a single nation alone, the Philippines recognizes that its strategic context significantly shapes the realization of its goals and agenda.

The Philippines holds the top position for the highest number of emigrants in Southeast Asia and ranks ninth globally. Significant destinations for Filipino emigrants include countries in the Indo-Pacific region, such as the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Australia. Consequently, safeguarding the rights and security of overseas Filipino workers and emigrants worldwide has become a paramount concern for the Philippines. Hence, a regional security vision should encompass human security, emphasizing the well-being and safety of immigrants, and this perspective needs to be integral to the Philippine regional security agenda.

Final Words

The Philippines faces complex challenges in its regional relations, particularly with China in the South China Sea. Tensions persist due to territorial disputes and China’s aggressive actions. The Philippines seeks regional cooperation but risks straining ties by pursuing an independent code of conduct. Emphasizing the Indo-Pacific’s impact on its security, the Philippines must balance national interests with collaborative regional efforts. The nation’s significant emigrant population further underscores the need for a comprehensive regional security vision. Navigating these complexities requires adept diplomacy, and recognizing global dynamics’ influence on the Philippines’ evolving strategic landscape.