BY BASANTI MARDEMOOTOO
After a Chinese bomber set bay on one of the disputed South China Sea islands last week, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte gave a surprising speech to his country’s navy. Years after disputing the sovereignty of the South China Sea, Duterte resorted to stating “I cannot go to war with China.”
To many Filipinos, this statement was unexpected given the country’s deep rooted efforts to fight for their share of the South China Sea. So, where does this dispute stands today? What does Duterte’s statement say about what is to come?
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei have found themselves in contention over who controls what part of the South China Sea. In acknowledging the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), each country has grounds for their claim given their request for falls within their Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ).
The conflict itself is over the territorial and sovereign control over the ocean areas and the Paracel and Spratly islands. This region is highly contested because of its geographical benefits to shipping routes or security buffers, but it is also known to have potentially unexplored natural resources that have not been explored yet. The region is known to have an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil on top of access to 10 percent of the world’s fisheries.
Of all contesting countries, China’s claim encompasses the largest territorial demands which they demarcate by using the nine dash line. The Chinese claim their presence is historically justified and rely on historical maps to assert that the two main islands in the South China Sea have been important to China for centuries.
Vietnam has been on China’s back regarding the plausibility of China’s claims, but the Philippines has, by far, been China’s biggest contender. The Spratly islands are in very close geographical proximity to the Philippines, which strengthens the country’s claim for the islands. Back in 2016, the Philippines won a monumental international law case regarding their claims for territory in the South China Sea. The Chinese suffered a legal setback when arbitration at the Hague decided that China’s claims were unjustified. China, strongly critical of the United States’ past violations of international law, found itself criticizing the outcome of this trial. Despite China’s role in the negotiations, and the resultant establishment of the UNCLOS, they dismissed its ruling as “null and void.”
Despite all of the competing claims, China has persisted in growing its presence in the region. There have been a series of maritime standoffs between China and the Philippines since 2012. In 2014, the Chinese introduced a drilling rig by one of the islands. Last week, for the first time, China landed long range bombers on one of the islands in the South China Sea making its presence in the area known. This act of militarization comes after China publicly stated that “China does not intend to pursue militarization.” This small but important step is the beginning of China’s broader goals for its control over the area. Having this control increases China’s regional power, ensuring its dominance in the Asian region.
The Philippines started shifting their stance against China as soon as the U.S. started becoming a more prominent player in the situation. Towards the end of 2016, Duterte started to broker agreements between the Philippines, China, and Russia. Accompanied by several threats of expelling the American Special Forces from the country to ending joint maritime patrols, Duterte clearly expressed his animosity towards the U.S.
Duterte’s intentions of avoiding conflict with the Chinese has many worried. Based on the location of the disputed islands, the Chinese would have a clear line of sight to the Philippines when it comes to a striking range. This has been a source of alarm for many living in the country. The country’s Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, who played an integral part in building the case for the UN Arbitration Hearing, openly criticized the government’s decision to slowly back down. Duterte’s leniency towards China makes it doubtful that he will conform to the demands of his people or to the Chief Justice’s claims.
This act was, no doubt, a slap in the face to both the authority of the United Nations and the United States. By landing its bombers on one of the islands, China’s message is clear: they intend to control the region and no other country or international organization can stop them from doing so.
Earlier this month the Trump Administration announced there would be consequences if China continued its operations. But the U.S. lacks jurisdiction in the area, giving it little leverage over the issue. Similarly, the UN also finds itself helpless. The opinion delivered by the arbitration court, albeit binding, has no legal enforcement mechanism which could threaten any infringement of the consequences and Duterte has established the Philippines’s stance in backing off the issue. Given that they are the biggest contenders, this could very well be the break in the dispute China has been waiting for.