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Minimizing the “U.S. Factor” and “South China Sea Factor” in China-Philippines Relations

2023-04-21 21:56:10       source:NISCSS

Minimizing the “U.S. Factor” and “South China Sea Factor” in China-Philippines Relations 

—Remarks at the 8th Manila Forum for China- Philippines Relations


Wu Shicun 

Chairman, Huayang Institute for Research on Marine Cooperation and Ocean Governance

Chairman of the Board, China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea

Manila, April 14, 2023


It has become an important consensus between China and the Philippines that the South China Sea issue does not “comprise the sum-total of relations between the two countries”. However, due to the “U.S. factor” and the “South China Sea factor”, China-Philippines relations will still face many challenges in the future.


First, the ever-deepening U.S.-Philippine security cooperation will be a main driver behind the militarization in the South China Sea. U.S. military deployments in the South China Sea include the growing number of forward military bases, larger military exercises, frequent and intensive close-in reconnaissance on China from the air, and regular activities of aircraft carrier formations and nuclear-powered submarines.


Second, the regional security architecture featuring ASEAN centrality is challenged by factions built up by non-resident forces. This structure built on multilateralism by ASEAN is weakened by the U.S.-led Quad, AUKUS and “U.S.-Japan Plus”. Some ASEAN countries have selectively joined U.S.-led security cooperation mechanisms, posing a new challenge to ASEAN’s “balance of power” strategy.


Third, unilateral actions of some claimant countries in disputed waters will have a negative impact on the South China Sea and on bilateral relations. For example, some littoral states conducted unilateral oil and gas exploration and development in overlapped areas claimed by different countries. They carried large-scale expansion on islands and reefs they illegal occupied and deployed military facilities there.


The past decade saw ups and downs in China-Philippines relations. Since the second half of 2016, their relations returned to the right track. At the beginning of this year, Chinese and Filipino leaders stressed once again that the two countries would further strengthen the China-Philippines relationship of Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation under the new circumstances. However, to maintain the steady development of China-Philippines relations, there are still two major disturbing factors, one is the “South China Sea issue” and the other the “U.S. factor” in China-Philippines relations.


On April 3, the Philippine government officially announced the specific locations of the four new military bases it agreed to make available to U.S. forces last February, three of which are located in Cagayan and Isabela provinces on Luzon Island in the northern Philippines, and one on Balabac Islands in Palawan province in the western Philippines facing the South China Sea. The naval base in Cagayan province is only about 400 kilometers from Taiwan, and Balabac Islands are only 200 kilometers from China’s Meiji Reef.


Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. claimed on April 10 that “We will not allow our bases to be used for any offensive actions.” However, once the U.S. begins to use these four military bases, things may get out of the Philippines’ control. In one very likely outcome, the Philippines would not only fall victim to the U.S.-China military confrontation in the South China Sea, but it could also be forced militarily into the U.S.-China conflict in the Taiwan Straits.


Diplomatically, the U.S. has made it part of its South China Sea policy to widen the differences between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea and to create a “rift” between the two countries in the South China Sea. The U.S. said it supported the Philippines’ claims and actions in the South China Sea, which I believe are not “unconditional” and “backed by considerations”. The U.S. proposed joint U.S.-Philippine patrol and invited Japan and Australia to join, with the intention to pursue its gray-zone strategy in the South China Sea. The Philippines is just a “tool” in the U.S. joint patrol plan, which will only widen differences between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea and trigger crises there.


At present, we need to understand and properly address the following issues, if we are to maintain the stability of Sino-Philippine relations.


First, the U.S. and Philippine should not target China in their alliance and security cooperation. This is a prerequisite for stable development of China-Philippine relations in the future. The Philippines provides an important way for the U.S. to shape China's neighboring environment through “investment, alliance, and competition”. If U.S.-Philippine cooperation in the use of military bases and joint military exercises threatened China’s highest national interests such as territorial integrity, sovereign rights and national security in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, not only would China-Philippines relations be hurt first and foremost, but also the South China Sea would be destabilized. This would not serve the Philippines’ own interests.


Second, we need to prevent the arbitral award from exerting a negative impact once again on the bilateral relations. China and the Philippines have their own positions on the arbitration ruling. The only way out is to set aside their differences and not make the ruling an additional condition in dealing with bilateral relations and maritime issues. Should the Philippines keep hyping up this issue and attempt to take practical actions to “substantiate” the arbitral award, the “South China Sea dilemma” in China-Philippines relations would never be solved. Trade, economic cooperation, people-to-people exchanges, tourism and investment will inevitably be disrupted.


Third, joint oil and gas development will be the “wind vane” of China-Philippines relations and cooperation in the South China Sea. During their meeting last January, the two presidents confirmed negotiations on oil and gas cooperation would be resumed. At present, negotiations between the two countries on oil and gas cooperation still face some obstacles and difficulties. In fact, offshore oil and gas cooperation between the two countries will achieve far-reaching consequences. It will provide a viable path for the Philippines to mitigate domestic energy shortages, stabilize its relations with China and build mutual trust. It will also set a precedent for other disputing countries to explore oil and gas cooperation. On the basis of sufficient political will and confidence, the two governments can discuss specific technical issues such as applicable laws, cooperation models, inputs and benefit sharing.


Fourth, maritime law enforcement agencies in the two countries need to continue their cooperation and set up a hotline mechanism between them, in order to better management crisis and forestall conflicts at sea. In the past, China and the Philippines have explored some initial effective ways to manage crises in the waters of Huangyan Island, Renai Reef, Tiexian Reef, etc. on issues such as fisheries enforcement, humanitarian supplies, and maintaining the status quo in some local areas. The two sides have accumulated experience to avoid escalation of tensions, which can be called “gentleman’s agreement”. Since 2017, he China Coast Guard (CCG) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) worked together in a number of areas under the Joint Coast Guard Committee (JCGC) on Maritime Cooperation. The hotline between the two foreign ministries was put into operation last January. It is suggested that the hotline mechanism be extended to maritime law enforcement agencies and navies, in order to better manage crises on the sea and in the air.


Finally, I would like to emphasize once 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, China and the Philippines have not only aligned the Belt and Road Initiative and the “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, but also conducted nearly 40 government-to-government cooperation projects in various fields, including agriculture, trade, economy, energy, infrastructure, science and technology, and people-to-people exchanges. The two-way trade has doubled, making China the Philippines’ solid top trading partner and source of imports. During President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the Philippines in November 2018, the two countries officially established the comprehensive strategic partnership. In the future, China and the Philippines need to be more proactive in managing crisis and continue to deepen cooperation in four key areas—agriculture, infrastructure, energy and people-to-people exchanges, to ensure stable and long-term development of China-Philippines relations.