Current Security Situation and Future Direction of South China Sea Disputes in the Context of Philippines-China Relations – Analysis – Eurasia Review
Despite the perceived turbulence and stormy outlook resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the current security situation in the South China Sea remains stable. Why? Because there is no doubt that normal shipping activities for international trade and commerce are not hindered.
However, unilateral military, paramilitary, developmental and even scientific activities of claimants and some user states involving some major powers, cause occasional security tensions on the ground and serious political concerns among officials. If not handled peacefully, these unilateral activities can lead to unintended violent encounters at sea.
To maintain the much-desired peace, it is therefore essential to remind all parties again and again of the absolute necessity of exercising restraint in the conduct of counterproductive unilateral activities which may be misunderstood and may harm bilateral efforts. and multilateral organizations promoting friendship and cooperation in the South China Sea. To the extent possible, unilateral activities should be conducted responsibly, with decisive respect for existing international laws, sensitive and categorical to the respective national positions of the parties, respectful of the sovereignty and sovereign rights of the claimants, as well as mindful of the benefits of multilateral cooperation to avoid violent conflicts if not completely resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The March 2, 2022 incident between China and the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal was a bitter example of how unilateral activities can truly threaten peace and stability in the South China Sea. The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest for the incident. The Philippine government has accused the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel with bow number 3305 of carrying out a dangerous close-range maneuver over an area of approximately 21 meters (19.2 m) towards the vessel. Philippine (Republic of the Philippines Ship) BRP Malabrigo. According to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), “This limited BRP Malabrigo’s maneuvering space – a flagrant violation of the International Regulations for the Avoidance of Collisions at Sea, 1972 (COLREGS).”
But Wang Wengbin, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, stressed that the Scarborough Shoal is China’s ‘inherent territory’, arguing the Philippines should ‘avoid interfering’ with its patrols in the area. .
Another unfortunate incident occurred on April 4, 2022 in the northern part of the province of Palawan where CCG Vessel 4201 was seen following the Philippine monitoring vessel, Geo Coral, and its support vessel, Mariska G, while performing work to develop natural gas and oil under a service contract. 75. While the CCG vessel stood at a safe distance from the two Philippine vessels, the recent incident encouraged the Philippine government to suspend its activities in SC 75.
Apparently, unilateral patrols and development activities by both sides can actually increase the risk of inadvertent armed conflict resulting from accidents, miscalculations and misjudgments. Unilateral actions may also undermine the two countries’ helpful efforts to promote bilateral cooperation in the South China Sea to peacefully and pragmatically manage their existing territorial disputes and maritime jurisdiction disputes.
Thus, it is really important for the Philippines and China to avoid unilateral activities which may damage the friendly bilateral relations that the two have built over the years. The two countries should refrain from activities that may cause misunderstandings that may even lead to unnecessary accidents that not only damage good bilateral relations, but are also detrimental to national and regional security interests.
To this end, the Philippines and China should vigorously maintain their Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM) in the South China Sea, even beyond the Duterte administration, to develop appropriate approaches for both sides to encourage actions. coordinated bilateral and cooperation initially in the Scarborough Shoal. and possibly in the Greater South China Sea region. Coordinated bilateral actions can reduce the risk of accidents while both sides continue their respective patrols in accordance with their own national considerations and requirements. Setting up coordinated bilateral patrols in the Scarborough Shoal is more feasible and manageable as only the two sides are involved, unlike the Spratlys where there are more actors where effective coordination and pragmatic cooperation are big challenges.
In the Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines and China can promote the principle of duty to cooperate more pragmatically because only two parties are at stake where addressing differences are less complicated to manage. In this particular area of the South China Sea, the Philippines and China can discuss not only coordinated patrols, but also bilateral cooperation in fisheries management, marine environment research, environmental protection marine environment, safety of navigation and communications at sea, search and rescue operations and the fight against transnational crimes, including international terrorism. These areas of cooperation are, in fact, mandated by the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea and in the ongoing negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. .
At present, the implementation of the DOC and the negotiation of the COC are facing enormous difficulties due to the current pandemic and other persistent factors that are disrupting regional actions. But the Philippines and China can start the discussion to have their Bilateral Code of Conduct in the Scarborough Shoal (BCOCSS) to pursue bilateral actions. This bilateral COC can complement rather than undermine the ongoing China-ASEAN COC negotiations.
If the Philippines and China can have the political will to introduce their COC in the Scarborough Shoal and implement it well, it can also encourage others to have bilateral COCs with China that can provide the solid foundation. of a regional COC. If the Philippines and China can promote a bilateral COC and encourage others to follow suit for a regional COC, there is no other direction in the South China Sea than peace, friendship and cooperation.
*Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD, is currently the President of the Philippine Association for China Studies (PACS), a board member of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC), and Adjunct Research Professor at National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS). He is also the President of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) while serving as a lecturer in the Department of International Studies at Miriam College in the Philippines. This analysis is based on his speech delivered at the South China Sea Sub-Forum of the 2022 Boao Forum Asia Annual Conference held on April 22, 2022.