China’s bilateral relations with Philippines have been witnessing a significant downfall ever since Beijing unilaterally attempted to alter regional stability by asserting its claim over the South China Sea in 2009. The move has since then strained China’s bilateral relation with not only Philippines but also with other Southeast nations as well; yet, Manila has been amongst the handful of nations that have stood up to China’s assertive behaviour in the volatile region.
The geographically strategic region of South China sea encompasses 3.5 million sq.km of area and is adjoined by seven nations including Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and China. It presents the shortest shipping route between the Indian ocean and Northeast Asia thus signifying its strategic value.
China on its end, has since its assertion prevented Philippines from initiating oil and gas developmental projects and has limited Manila’s fishing expeditions in the disputed region. Moreover, China forceful assertion over the waters have included Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) formed by Philippines thus leading to a case for arbitral proceedings against China’s obnoxious claims. The decision of the tribunal has since then been rejected by China which went against Chinese claims over the region. Far less from easing tensions, China has been intensifying its forceful assertiveness over the South China Sea provoking diplomatic tensions between the two nations.
Philippines have claimed that China in its attempt of altering the status quo has developed disputed reefs into artificial islands with permanent structures. The artificial islands that remained much in debate around China’s hegemonic aspirations, have been understood to be fortified as military bases over not only international waters but much worse, over sovereign waterways of the Philippines state. This unilateral alteration of persisting understandings, is in clear violation of sovereignty of China’s neighbouring countries. The dispute with Philippines in particular has been aggressive regarding Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal, over which Beijing claims territorial dominance.
Chinese maritime forces have been notorious in igniting conflicts with their Filipino counterparts by regularly harassing fishing boats and fishermen from Philippines over the unilaterally invoked disputed region. The Chinese navy have also been blockading supply dispatched for BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II era warship, which currently serves as an
outpost of the Philippine Marine Corps to assert its sovereignty over the disputed ownership of the Spratly Islands.
Most recently, the Philippines military claimed that the Chinese coast guard forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris that the Filipino navy had recovered from the South China Sea near the Thithu Island. In order to subvert the issue, Chinese officials had claimed that no such seizure was conducted. It is least to be state that such cover ups are testimony to China’s espionage tactics that it has had a history of deploying especially in sensitive regions. Notably the incident occurred hours prior to a historic visit by Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States, to Philippines for increased security cooperation talks between the two long-term allies. More so, the Thithu islands which is also referred to as Pag-asa is home to a large Filipino fishing community and is located very close to Subi, which is one of the seven disputed reefs in the South China Sea.
Such provocative measures are understood to be only undertaken when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is commanded to rile up tensions. Such unilateral actions in the form of altercation between the coast guard and navy of the two countries can be predicted to have taken shape in light of the Filipino President’s visit to China that was underway very recently. Such brazen acts of aggression have also been contested by the Philippine government and have been rebutted diplomatically by filing protests against China over aggressive actions in the South China Sea while also vehemently rejecting Chinese claims of its sovereign territory.
It would however be uncomprehensive to not account China’s Taiwan aspirations as its principal motivator against dwindling of bilateral relations with Manila. One of the prominent reasons for the United States military and financial aid directed towards Philippines is understood to be due to Taiwan, for Philippines and Taiwan share closer geographical proximity and an ally in the region to counter China is a prospect the U.S has been striving to achieve for decades. Moreover, Philippine’s northernmost and its most populous island, Luzon is at a bare distance of 250 km from Taiwan’s main body, separated only by the Luzon strait. Some of the outlying islands of both Taiwan and Philippines are much closer than the main regions while Taiwan is also home to around two hundred thousand Filipinos. China’s South
China Sea dispute should therefore also been seen an act to secure for itself a strategic military advantage while keeping its neighbourhood under a constant threat of Chinese incursions.
China at present accounts for around 20 percent of Manila’s foreign trade and is also the amongst the largest source of its FDI’s into the country’s economy. This was only made possible due to Philippine’s erstwhile president Rodrigo Duterte who found himself closer to China than to the country’s oldest allies, the United States. However, the recent provocations by China have cemented resentment against China not only in the political class of Philippines but also within the general public at large. In its bid to contain the Chinese threat the government must therefore revisit Chinese investments in the country by revising or even revoking contracts of the ongoing Chinese investments in the country.
Three major Chinese railway projects have until now remained immune to political skirmishes between the two countries, but the Filipino government on their side, would be well advised to draw out a red line indicating to China that any threat to its sovereignty will have repercussions that will harm Chinese interests. Moreover, a security cover guaranteed by the United States in view of a growing Chinese aspirations to take over Taiwan is a prospect that can benefit Philippines in its bid to counter-balance its China problem. Thus, a closer U.S-Philippines cooperations is an added advantage that can safeguard Philippines sovereign rights against China’s hegemonic aspiration not only in the South China sea but also across the whole of the Southeast Asian region.
China’s hegemonic characteristics have until now faced some hindrances in the form of consequences for its credibility as a regional powerhouse, countries from Southeast Asia must secure their sovereign claims from an expansionist China; for if not, a hegemonic China would be significantly detrimental to the region as well as for the continent as a whole.