South China Sea Tension Brings the Philippines to a Crossroads

By Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia, a former PLA engineer, specialized in aviation equipment and engineering technology management. After retiring from military service, he has been following the world's development of military equipment.
August 2, 2021 Updated: August 3, 2021

The Philippine government, which once tried to defuse the South China Sea conflict by wooing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is facing mounting discontent at home due to repeated provocations from the latter. The defense establishment is also increasingly dissatisfied with President Duterte’s concessions to the CCP in the South China Sea.

It all started with the Hague arbitration five years ago. The Philippines accused the CCP of violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by claiming maritime rights based on the “nine-dash line” in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, as well as maritime law enforcement and reef development activities. It then filed a complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.

On July 12, 2016, in the absence of the CCP, the PCA issued an award in support of almost all claims of the Philippines on issues related to the case. The tribunal’s five arbitrators unanimously ruled that under UNCLOS, the CCP has no historic rights to the natural resources of the South China Sea based on the “nine-dash line.” The tribunal also found that the CCP’s land reclamation in the South China Sea had caused irreparable damage to the environment and asked the government to stop its activities in the Sea.

On July 12, the fifth anniversary of the award, several countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan, called on the CCP to comply with the ruling. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also said the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty would cover attacks on the South China Sea.

“The Award conclusively settled the status of historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said on the fifth anniversary of the issuance of the Award on the South China Sea Arbitration. “We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for.”

Relations between Manila and Beijing have become increasingly strained this year over disputed claims in the South China Sea. In March, hundreds of Chinese ships were stranded in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Manila made repeated demands on Beijing to withdraw them, to no avail.

In April, the Philippine Foreign Ministry issued a statement asking hundreds of Chinese militia fishing boats, gathered in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, to leave the Whitsun Reef. The CCP insists it owns the reef and that its fishing boats are doing nothing wrong to shelter there.

Manila’s defense establishment is increasingly dissatisfied with President Rodrigo Duterte’s failure to take full advantage of the PCA’s Award and concessions in the South China Sea.

“China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see… O…GET THE [expletive deleted] OUT,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Locsin said in a social media post on May 3 about the CCP’s incursions into Philippine territorial waters.

When being criticized for not using proper language as the country’s chief diplomat, Locsin explained in a follow-up tweet, “Usual suave diplomatic speak gets nothing done.”

Locsin’s tweet followed a statement from the Philippine Foreign Ministry accusing Chinese Coast Guard vessels of taking “proactive action” against Philippine vessels conducting exercises near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The CCP-controlled Scarborough Shoal is one of the richest fish areas in the Sea, claimed by both China and the Philippines and a point of tension between the two countries.

On July 19, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said a Chinese navy survey vessel entered Philippine waters while the Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel BRB Cabra was patrolling fishing grounds in the northeastern Spratly Islands. The vessel, hull number 189, was flying a Chinese flag. The Chinese vessel maintained its course, speed, and radio silence, forcing the Philippine vessel to come within earshot and use speakers to issue a warning. Only then did the Chinese vessel change course and leave the area—accompanied by the patrol boat.

A spokesman for the Philippine Coast Guard said they had strictly followed international agreements when confronting the Chinese vessel. This is to ensure that while protecting the nation’s democratic ideals, they follow a peaceful rules-based approach so that Philippine sovereignty is protected.

The incident occurred on the same day as the fifth anniversary of the PCA’s Award in Manila’s favor, but the Philippine government didn’t release the news of the standoff until a week later.

On July 21, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said before President Duterte’s State of the Union address that the Philippines-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) would be amended, not terminated. The Agreement allows U.S. forces to station in the Philippines and provide host countries with military interaction, maritime security, maritime domain awareness and capacity building, and economic benefits.

The Philippines has long been an ally of the United States. However, President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in 2016, changed the foreign policy of his predecessor Benigno Aquino III by reaching out to the CCP for the first time.

On July 26, Duterte delivered his last State of the Nation address in office, reiterating his country’s reluctance to go to war with the CCP over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and calling Xi Jinping a “good friend.” Referring to the 2016 Arbitration by the PCA, the Philippine President said there was no arbitration because he did not think the document was binding on the CCP. He asked his countrymen: “Do you want war against China? Well, I’ll tell you, even on the coast beach of Palawan, before you can take off, the missile of China would be there in about five or 10 minutes.”

Retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio refuted the president immediately after the address. “That’s the reason why we went to The Hague, because war is not an option,” he said, adding that the CCP cannot repudiate an international arbitration on the grounds that it did not attend, because it is a signatory to UNCLOS and ratified the Convention in 2006.

“When you ratify UNCLOS, you give your consent in advance to any future dispute under UNCLOS settlement mechanism. China has only itself to blame, and it knows that.”

Carpio pointed out that even the CCP does not want a war because the Philippines is the only country in the South China Sea dispute that has a mutual defense treaty with the United States.

“The last thing China would want to do is to give the United States legal excuse to intervene in the South China Sea dispute,” he said, arguing that the CCP is using its military and economic might to intimidate, and the strategy is working.

“Because states are being intimidated and leaders like Duterte are being intimidated. They’re falling into a trap [with] China.”

On July 12, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement on the fifth anniversary of the South China Sea arbitration, calling on the CCP and the Philippines to accept the arbitration, and making it clear that any attack on Philippine armed forces, government vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea will trigger the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). The Treaty contains a provision that an attack on one party is considered an attack on the other. Therefore, the two countries will provide assistance to each other.

Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia
Stephen Xia, a former PLA engineer, specialized in aviation equipment and engineering technology management. After retiring from military service, he has been following the world's development of military equipment.