The President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has stated that as the Philippines is located on the front line of the South China Sea dispute, it is necessary to discuss tensions in the waters. He added that if something goes wrong in the region, the Philippines will be affected, as per a report from Nikkei Asia. Marcos made these remarks while speaking with the President of the World Economic Forum, Borge Brende, at the ongoing annual summit in Davos. “It keeps you up at night, it keeps you up in the day, it keeps you up most of the time,” he said, highlighting how high the stakes are in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea, which is rich in minerals and has warm waters, has been a source of dispute for a long time between Beijing and some neighboring countries, with the US supporting those who disagree with China’s claims. The US has frequently sent its military ships and planes over the waters as a part of the freedom of navigation operations, which China has often claimed as a violation of its territorial integrity. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries such as Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Taiwan, which China claims as its own, all have coastlines on the South China Sea and are claimants to the disputed waters.
What is at stake for Philipines?
The Philippines has a number of stakes in the South China Sea dispute, including:
Territorial sovereignty: The Philippines claims sovereignty over certain islands, reefs, and other maritime features in the South China Sea, including the Scarborough Shoal, which is located just 230km from its coast. These claims are based on the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Access to resources: The Philippines also has an interest in accessing the rich resources in the South China Sea, including fish, oil, and gas. These resources are important for the country’s economic development and energy security.
Security concerns: The Philippines is also concerned about the militarization of the South China Sea by other countries, particularly China, which has been building artificial islands and military facilities in the region. This has raised concerns about the security of the Philippines and the region as a whole.
A brief look at Philippines relationship with US and China
The Philippines has had a complex relationship with both countries. Historically, the Philippines has had close ties with the United States, as it was a former colony of the US and has a mutual defense treaty with the US, which was signed in 1951. However, the Philippines has also sought to improve its relations with China in recent years, particularly in the areas of trade and investment. In 2013, the Philippines took legal action against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, but China has refused to recognize the ruling.
In recent years, the Philippines has also sought to balance its relations with China and the US, as it looks to maintain good relations with both countries while also protecting its own interests in the South China Sea. While the Philippines has expressed concerns over China’s actions in the South China Sea, it has also sought to avoid a direct confrontation with China and has looked forward to resolving disputes through diplomatic means. The Philippines has a significant stake in the South China Sea dispute and has had a complex relationship with both China and the US. The Philippines wants to balance its relations with both countries while also protecting its own interests in the region, however China’s imperialist tendencies are proving a challenge.
The South China Sea dispute
In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the “Declaration on the Conduct” regarding the South China Sea, which was China’s first acceptance of a multilateral agreement on the issue. China’s claims to the region are based on its “nine-dash line,” which is a series of purple dashes on official Chinese maps that represent Beijing’s historical claims to the South China Sea. However, as mentioned above, in 2016, the Philippines won a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which invalidated China’s South China Sea expansion claims. President Marcos has said that the situation is dynamic and constantly changing, and that it’s important to pay attention to it and be aware of the present situation to respond properly. He also emphasised the importance of committing to a peaceful foreign policy guided by national interest and that he had discussed South China Sea tensions with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping earlier this month in Beijing.
Historic factors at play in the dispute
The South China Sea conflict is a complex issue with roots dating back to the early 20th century. At its core, the conflict centers around competing territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, which is a strategically important body of water that is home to a variety of valuable resources and is a major global shipping route. Historic literature on the conflict points to the territorial disputes between China and its neighboring countries as a key factor driving the issue. These disputes have their origins in the colonial era, when European powers carved up the region and established a number of competing territorial claims. After World War II, these claims were inherited by the newly independent countries in the region, leading to ongoing disputes over who has sovereignty over certain islands, reefs, and other maritime features.
The colonial aspects of the South China Sea conflict relate to the way in which European powers, specifically the Spanish, Dutch, and British, established territorial claims in the region during the 19th and early 20th centuries. These colonial powers established a number of settlements, trading posts, and other forms of control over various islands, reefs, and other maritime features in the South China Sea. After World War II, the newly independent countries in the region inherited these colonial claims and have since been in disputes over the territorial sovereignty of certain islands and reefs.
One of the most significant colonial legacies in the South China Sea is the “Nine-Dash Line” map (which was mentioned above). This was created by the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1947. This map, which China still uses today, depicts a U-shaped line that encompasses almost the entire South China Sea and all its disputed islands, reefs and atolls. This map has been used to claim sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, which has been challenged by neighboring countries, and is not recognized by the United Nations.
The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei all have overlapping claims to various islands, reefs, and other maritime features in the South China Sea, and these disputes have been a major driver of the conflict. For example, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, a group of small islands, reefs, and atolls that are believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves. The Philippines, meanwhile, claims sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcropping that is located just 230km from its coast. Malaysia and Brunei also have claims to certain areas in the South China Sea, including the Luconia Shoals and the James Shoal. These overlapping claims have led to a contentious situation in the South China Sea, with countries using a variety of means, including diplomacy, military force, and the building of artificial islands, to assert their claims and protect their interests in the region.
Material factors at play
Another key factor driving the conflict is the strategic importance of the South China Sea. The area is rich in resources such as oil, gas, and fish, and is also home to important shipping lanes that connect Asia to the rest of the world. According to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCT), the South China Sea is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with over $3 trillion worth of goods passing through it annually. This includes a significant amount of trade between Asia and the rest of the world, as well as between countries in the region.
One of the main reasons for the South China Sea’s importance as a shipping lane is its location. The region connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans, providing a crucial link between the major economic powers of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the wider Asia-Pacific region. This makes it a vital route for the transportation of goods such as manufactured products, raw materials, and oil and gas. Additionally, the South China Sea is home to several major ports and shipping hubs, including Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Ho Chi Minh City, which serve as important transshipment points for cargo moving between Asia and the rest of the world.
The region also has several important straits and waterways, including the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Taiwan, and the Sunda Strait, which are among the busiest and most strategically important shipping lanes in the world. To give an example, The Strait of Malacca, which is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, handles around 40% of the world’s trade, including a large amount of oil and gas being transported from the Middle East to East Asia. Control of the South China Sea would give a country significant economic and military advantages, making it a highly contested area.