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Home Opinion In the South China Sea, Beijing can ill afford to be seen as a bully

In the South China Sea, Beijing can ill afford to be seen as a bully

by Tunae

Raising tensions in the South China Sea is “the last thing we would like”, said Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr recently, when pressed on whether Manila would adopt more aggressive tactics, such as the water cannons used by the Chinese. “And that [using water cannons] will certainly do that,” he said, dismissing the idea.

In recent months, Chinese maritime forces have repeatedly aimed water cannons at Philippine resupply and patrol missions in the disputed South China Sea, damaging vessels and injuring servicemen. Manila is facing growing pressure to adopt stronger countermeasures.
To bolster its position, the Philippines has joined an emerging alliance, nicknamed the “Squad”, with the United States, Australia and Japan to counter a powerful China. It has also expanded the scope of its annual military drills with Western allies – this year’s Balikatan conducted, for the first time, drills beyond its 12 nautical-mile territorial sea as well as close to Taiwan.

But this tilt towards the US could jeopardise Manila’s strategic autonomy and further alienate China – as well as concern fellow Asean members fretting over the risk of a new cold war.

For China, its actions in the South China Sea risk its reputation as a responsible stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific, accelerating the US’ expanding military footprint in the Philippines and, more worryingly, causing Beijing to sleepwalk towards an armed confrontation with a key US treaty ally.

The upshot is a brinkmanship that could tip over into mutual losses, especially if each side presses its advantage at the expense of sustainable and peaceful management of an inherently intractable conflict. It’s high time the Philippines and China work to avoid conflict by pursuing mutually beneficial agreements, rather than rely on military might and diplomatic intransigence.

US and Philippines conduct annual Balikatan drills amid rising tensions with China

It’s hard to sugarcoat the troubling state of Philippine-China relations. Against the backdrop of festering maritime spats, diplomatic channels are on the verge of total disintegration.

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Frustrated by Manila’s assertion of claims in the disputed areas and its publicising of dangerous encounters with Chinese maritime forces, Beijing has responded with a diplomatic offensive.
Over the past year, China has referred to confidential deals with the administrations of both Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos Jnr. Under a “gentleman’s agreement”, the former Philippine president is said to have assented to not fortifying the Philippines’ grounded navy vessel in the Second Thomas Shoal, its de facto military base there. Various Philippine officials have categorically denied such a deal.
Diplomatic tensions, however, reached new heights when China, incensed by the Philippines’ plans to fortify disputed land features, leaked details of an alleged “new model” agreement with the current leadership. In response, top Philippine security officials called for the Chinese diplomats involved to be expelled.
Philippine admiral at centre of ‘new deal’ saga breaks silence on alleged South China Sea pact
Amid the diplomatic deadlock, China hawks within the Marcos administration are pushing for tighter security cooperation with traditional allies. Last month, Marcos attended a trilateral summit with his Japanese and US counterparts in the White House. This month, Philippine Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro met defence chiefs from other Squad nations – Australia, Japan and the US – in Hawaii.

Over the coming months, the four allies are set to enhance naval interoperability and conduct regular joint patrols in the South China Sea.

The Philippine defence establishment is also pressing for expanded security cooperation, including visiting forces agreement-style deals with Japan and France, and, I understand, more bases under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US.
Although defensive in nature, this approach could end up undermining the Philippines’ strategic autonomy by fostering an undue reliance on Western powers. To begin with, the trajectory of US foreign policy is extremely volatile, given its competing strategic priorities from Ukraine to Israel and Taiwan, as well as the possibility of a more stridently “isolationist” foreign policy under a second Trump administration.
While Japan has a “global partnership” with the US, it also faces demographic and economic stagnation, and is unlikely to be able to drastically assist the Philippines. As for Australia, which has relatively modest resources and economic heft, it is already bogged down by the massive costs of and controversies surrounding its nuclear-powered submarine project with Washington and London.

Moreover, a full-throated tilt into the Western camp could further isolate the Philippines within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has broadly maintained warm and economically fruitful ties with China. The Philippines can’t afford to be seen as the US’ deputy sheriff in Southeast Asia lest it erodes its ability to exercise leadership among and secure tangible cooperation with key Asean members such as Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.

The status quo, however, is also deleterious to China’s interests. After all, the encirclement of much smaller Philippine vessels and injuring of Filipino servicemen at the hands of Chinese maritime forces will reinforce international concerns over China’s rise as a major power. And China’s newly imposed regulations against “trespassing” foreigners across its claimed territories in the South China Sea only raise the risk of accidental clashes and casualties.
As an aspiring leader in Asia, China can ill afford to be seen as a bully and, worse, risk an armed confrontation with the Philippines and potentially the US, which has reiterated its commitment to help in an event of a contingency in the South China Sea.
It is therefore incumbent on China, as the more powerful party, to re-examine its approach to the Philippines in favour of de-escalation and genuinely mutually beneficial agreements. On its part, the Marcos administration should ensure that it maintains robust communication channels with China, avoids getting dragged into a US-led “Asian Nato” and engages with the rest of Asean to pursue an inclusive and stable regional order.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific, and the forthcoming Duterte’s Rise

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