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China and the Philippines must ensure the US and South China Sea issues don’t come between them

2023-05-05 17:41:35       source:South China Morning Post

May 3, 2023

It has become an important consensus between China and the Philippines that South China Sea issues “do not comprise the sum-total of relations between the two countries”. However, given the United States factor and the South China Sea situation, China-Philippines relations will still face many challenges.

First, ever-deepening US-Philippine security cooperation will be a main driver of militarisation in the South China Sea, with US deployments in the region including the growing number of forward bases, larger military exercises, and frequent close-in aerial reconnaissance of China.

Second, Asean’s centrality in the regional security architecture, founded on multilateralism, is being challenged by groupings built by non-resident forces, such as the US-led Quad alliance, Aukus and trilateral groupings featuring the US and Japan.

Third, the unilateral actions of some claimant countries in disputed waters will have a negative impact on the South China Sea and on bilateral relations. Some littoral states have conducted unilateral oil and gas exploration and development in overlapping areas, and carried out expansion on illegally occupied islands and reefs.

The past decade has seen ups and downs in China-Philippines ties. In the second half of 2016, bilateral relations got back on the right track. At the beginning of this year, Chinese and Filipino leaders stressed that the two countries would further strengthen the relationship of comprehensive strategic cooperation. However, in maintaining the steady development of China-Philippines relations, there are two disturbing factors to consider.

On April 3, the Philippine government announced the locations of the four new military bases it had agreed to make available for US forces in February; three of the camps are in Cagayan and Isabela provinces on Luzon in the northern Philippines, and one is on Balabac Island in the western province of Palawan, facing the South China Sea.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr said on April 10: “We will not allow our military bases to be used for any offensive action.” However, once the US begins to assess these four bases, things might get out of the Philippines’ control.

The United States has also made it part of its South China Sea policy to cause a rift between China and the Philippines.

The US is planning joint patrols in the South China Sea with the Philippines, which Japan and Australia have been invited to join; it clearly intends to pursue a grey-zone strategy in the South China Sea. The Philippines seems to be a tool in this joint patrol plan, which would only widen its differences with China and trigger a crisis in the South China Sea.

First, the US and the Philippines should not target China in their security cooperation. This is a prerequisite for the stable development of China-Philippine relations. The Philippines provides an important way for the US to shape China’s neighbouring environment through Washington’s strategy of “invest, align, compete”.

If US-Philippine cooperation in the use of military bases and in military exercises should threaten China’s highest national interests, not only would China-Philippines relations be harmed, the South China Sea would also be destabilised.

Second, we need to prevent the South China Sea arbitration case from exerting another negative impact on bilateral relations. China and the Philippines have their own positions on the arbitration ruling. The only way out is to set aside differences and not make the ruling an additional condition in dealing with bilateral relations and maritime issues.

Should the Philippines continue to talk up this issue and attempt to take practical actions, the South China Sea dilemma in China-Philippines relations will never be solved.

Third, joint oil and gas development will propel cooperation in the South China Sea. While the two countries still face some obstacles to collaboration, the fact is that offshore oil and gas cooperation will provide a viable path for the Philippines to mitigate domestic energy shortages, stabilise relations with China and build mutual trust.

It would also set a precedent for other countries in dispute that seek oil and gas cooperation. On the basis of sufficient political confidence, the two governments can discuss specific issues such as applicable laws, cooperation models and benefit sharing.

Fourth, maritime law enforcement agencies in the two countries need to continue their cooperation and set up a hotline, to improve crisis management and forestall conflict at sea. China and the Philippines have explored some ways to manage issues in the waters of Huangyan Island, for example.

Earlier this year, the two sides agreed to set up a hotline between their respective foreign ministries to avoid an escalation of tensions. The hotline is now in operation. This mechanism should also be extended to the maritime law enforcement agencies and navies, to better manage crises at sea and in the air.

Finally, I would emphasise again that the South China Sea issue does not comprise the sum-total of relations between the two countries. Nor should it be a stumbling block to cooperation between China and the Philippines.

In the past six years, the two nations have conducted nearly 40 government-to-government cooperation projects in various fields. Two-way trade has doubled, and China is the Philippines’ top trading partner and source of imports.

In future, China and the Philippines need to be more proactive in managing crises and continue to deepen cooperation in four key areas – agriculture, infrastructure, energy, and people-to-people exchanges – to ensure the stable and long-term development of relations.

Wu Shicun is Chairman of the board, China-Southeast Asia Research Centre on the South China Sea; Chairman, Huayang Center for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance; Chairman, academic committee of National Institute for South China Sea Studies.