Philippine 'pivot' in the South China Sea

By Richard Javad Heydarian

MANILA - After three years of inconclusive bilateral negotiations with China and a year of precarious diplomatic brinkmanship under Cambodia's chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines has sought new ways to resolve its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Despite earlier hopes that China's leadership transition would yield a constructive re-orientation in its territorial posturing, the Philippines has faced a progressively more assertive People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has recently stepped up its "surveillance" missions in the disputed waters.

From Manila's point of view, it is only a matter of time before Beijing's perceived encroachments escalate into a direct occupation of disputed features, including the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal, which almost sparked a direct military confrontation between the two sides in mid-2012. Benigno Aquino's administration also now faces a dramatic escalation in nationalistic sentiments, especially among highly vocal netizens.

Local media have kept those sentiments abuzz with live and sensationalist coverage of territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. It was within this atmosphere of heightened popular nationalism that the followers of the Sultanate of Solo this year launched a ragtag invasion of remote territory in Malaysia in hope of rekindling historical claims to Sabah.

A cabinet reshuffle in the United States, meanwhile, has shown little signs of a major revitalization in Philippine-US military relations, with multiple crises in the Middle East occupying the attention of new Secretary of State John Kerry. That perceived inattention has sparked rumors that Manila is considering its own cabinet reshuffle, specifically to bring in figures who have stronger connections with their Chinese counterparts.

The Aquino administration has thus opted for a new strategy, anchored by a more muscular diplomacy directed at ASEAN and other international organizations. The aim is to rein in China's perceived assertiveness by building sufficient international pressure to give Manila leverage to restart negotiations towards a regional code of conduct, and/or strike a bilateral agreement with Beijing to ensure an element of sovereignty over disputed features within the Philippines' 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Under this new strategy, the Aquino administration is no longer beholden to the illusion of unconditional US strategic commitment. The Barack Obama administration's "pivot" policy, unveiled at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Summit in Hanoi, inspired inflated hopes among allies such as the Philippines of direct American involvement in the South China Sea disputes. Three years of efforts led by Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario to deepen bilateral security relations have failed to build a sufficient deterrent against China.

Given America's outsized bilateral relations with China, prevarications on key provisions of the Philippine-US 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), dwindling financial wiggle room in Washington, and growing strategic involvement in the Middle East's manifold crises, it has dawned on Manila's policy makers that outright reliance on the US is an impractical option. The Philippines is also no longer constrained by its earlier anticipation of Chinese self-restraint under new Chinese leader Xi Jinping's watch.

By resorting to the language of international law and freedom of navigation, Manila has placed wavering regional and global powers under the spotlight, making it increasingly difficult for ASEAN to shun the territorial disputes as a legitimate security concern in need of swift, decisive collective action. China's assertive behavior has provided additional impetus for greater diplomatic vigilance among others in the region who have nervously watched the maritime brinkmanship and diplomatic hiatus in the South China Sea.

Leading Filipino intellectuals and legislators such as Walden Bello have emphasized the need for a robust diplomatic strategy, with greater emphasis on regional solidarity and international law instead of an open-ended revitalization of security ties with the US. Cognizant of China's sensitivities to the US's presence in the region, many critics have pointed out the inherent contradiction in the Aquino administration's initial strategy, which combined the stick of re-alignment with the US with the carrot of a diplomatic charm offensive towards China.

That strategy obviously backfired, allowing China to use the pretext of a stronger US presence as justification for increased naval assertiveness. Meanwhile, some fellow ASEAN members came to see the Philippines as an overt extension of Washington's "pivot" to the region.

As a result, Manila's efforts to push for its version of a legally-binding code of conduct failed to resonate, while China was encouraged to use the full extent of its influence over allies such as Cambodia to blunt Manila's maneuvers within ASEAN. The result was a de facto collapse in regional diplomatic efforts to ease growing maritime tensions, with hawks in China pushing the envelope of brinkmanship.

Sense of urgency

Now focused on rallying the region behind its cause, and recognizing the downside of its initial strategy, the Aquino administration has tapped into the worries of others in the region over the dangerous escalation in maritime tensions. As a global artery for trade and energy transport, a large-scale direct confrontation in the South China Sea would adversely impact the entire region and beyond.

Under Brunei's chairmanship of ASEAN, Manila recognizes that it is dealing with a new regional dynamic. Unlike Cambodia, Brunei is a direct party to the South China Sea disputes, with the tiny kingdom determined to showcase its diplomatic ability as a credible arbiter. Alarmed by rising tensions among neighbors, ASEAN's founding members, notably Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, have also expressed their interest in building regional solidarity by re-starting negotiations for a code of conduct and preventing more diplomatic debacles.

Some observers have been surprised by Brunei's pro-active diplomacy considering its long-held tradition of subtle neutrality. Shortly before the ASEAN Summit held in April, Brunei's Sultan Bolkiah visited Aquino to express how he considered the diplomatic resolution of the disputes as a top priority under his watch. Manila, in turn, framed Bolkiah's statements as an endorsement of a code of conduct, putting an end to a year of diplomatic uncertainty under Cambodia's tenure as ASEAN's chairman.

Upon conclusion of the summit, Aquino held crucial bilateral talks with his Vietnamese counterpart, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan. Thereafter, Filipino officials announced that ASEAN's members had arrived at a consensus over the recognition of the ongoing maritime disputes as a "regional concern", portending a unified approach to establishing a binding code of conduct in the near future. Significantly, there was no dissenting response from Cambodia. Philippine media were quick to celebrate this as a sign of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Based on the statements of other participating diplomats, however, no "concrete agreement" to establish the necessary mechanisms, including the development of "guidelines", of a prospective code of conduct had been reached. Any move towards that will ultimately require China's consent, which to date has been absent.

In its exchanges with ASEAN members, China has made it clear in recent months that it will not relent on its "indisputable" and "inherent" sovereignty over the South China Sea. Without China's consent, ASEAN is unlikely to develop even a working agreement on the composition of a special group to draft elements of the code of conduct.

Despite its earlier token openness to ASEAN efforts under previous chairs, namely Vietnam (2010) and Indonesia (2011), to negotiate a code of conduct, Beijing continues to prefer a purely bilateral approach and staunchly opposes the internationalization of the issue. While sending an ever-larger flotilla of surveillance ships to assert its control over disputed waters, China has repeatedly dismissed Philippine efforts - backed by both the European Union and US - to resolve the disputes through international arbitration.

While Brunei has taken a more pro-active approach, it will likely try to avoid any direct confrontation with China, its major infrastructure and energy partner. Significantly, Sultan Bolkiah was invited to Beijing shortly before the ASEAN summit in Brunei. Movement on a code of conduct could fall victim to agenda overload, as Brunei gives emphasis to the establishment of an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. While Manila has changed diplomatic tack, China's hardline position has so far held.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's (ADMU) Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book The Economics of the Arab Spring: How Globalization Failed the Arab World, Zed Books, 2014. He can be reached

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