West Philippine Sea

As South China Sea tensions rise, Philippines turns to its fellow claimants  

Bea Cupin

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

As South China Sea tensions rise, Philippines turns to its fellow claimants  

'STRONG FRIENDSHIP.' Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. speaks during a State Banquet in his honor in Brunei.

Presidential Communications Office

The Marcos administration wants bilateral understanding with its neighbors, when a Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China is, so far, only but a dream

Surrounded by the opulent gold furnishings of the Brunei Sultan’s Istana Nurul Iman and a lavish arrangement of fresh roses, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Tuesday, May 28, spoke of how the Philippines and Brunei should “plan together for our own communities… but also for the peace and stability of the region.”

Marcos was in Brunei from May 28 to 29 for his first state visit to the Southeast Asian country. 

During the quick visit, Marcos and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah “exchanged views on regional and international issues of mutual interest including the importance of upholding international law, developments in Myanmar, Palestine-Israel, and the South China Sea,” according to a release from the Brunei Prime Minister’s office.

As in other trips abroad, both Marcos and his host made mention of his father, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. It was yet another flex of diplomacy, history, and personal ties that converged with Marcos Jr. as the country’s foreign policy architect.

Talk of geopolitics was also backed up by the signing of an agreement on “Maritime Cooperation.” 

While a copy of the document has not been made public, Marcos himself described it as a “diplomatic agreement between Brunei and the Philippines as to the resolution of conflicts and a… bilateral mechanism for us to have that line of communication so that there is very little room for misunderstanding or a mistake or the kinds of things that can cause problems between countries.” 

The signing of an agreement with Brunei comes just four months after Manila, during Marcos’ state visit to Vietnam, signed an agreement on incident prevention and management in the South China Sea with Hanoi. 

That means that in the first half of 2024 alone, the Philippines has managed to forge two maritime agreements, both on preventing and managing maritime conflict, with Southeast Asian neighbors who happen to be co-claimants of features in the South China Sea. 

It’s a move Marcos had announced before.

During a November 2023 visit to Hawaii, Marcos said Manila would make the effort to reach out to other claimant states as talks between China and ASEAN for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea continue without an end in sight. 

“We have taken the initiative to approach those other countries around ASEAN with whom we have existing territorial conflicts, Vietnam being one of them, Malaysia being another, and to make our own code of conduct. Hopefully this will grow further and extend to other ASEAN countries,” he said during an event at the Daniel Inouye Center. 

By “code of conduct,” Marcos meant bilateral agreements with Southeast Asian neighbors. 

“Brunei is a claimant state in the South China Sea dispute. Regardless of its silence, coordination with the country is crucial if Manila seeks to illustrate its intentions of socializing its position with its immediate neighbors in Southeast Asia,” explained Don McLain Gill, a geopolitical analyst who teaches at the Department of International Studies of the De La Salle University in Manila. 

People, Person, Adult
ASEAN NEIGHBORS. Marcos is welcomed to Brunei during a two-day state visit.
South China Sea claims 

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia claim different parts of the South China Sea, which China, meanwhile, claims in almost its entirety. Taiwan also claims most of the South China Sea, although unlike Beijing, Taipei has not resorted to aggressive actions in making its claims. 

“Socializing” the Philippines’ position, explained Gill, means “[deepening] communication and diplomatic engagements” with fellow claimant Brunei “to allow it to become more familiar with Manila’s position.”

“A security [Memorandum of Understanding] is an important prerequisite for deeper talks on security issues. So it is a helpful stepping stone,” he added. 

Unlike most Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea, Manila has been especially loud and assertive in defending both its sovereign rights and sovereignty claims. 

Marcos’ rhetoric has been clear: that the Philippines, under his watch, would not give up “a single square inch of our territory.” 

The policy at sea is clearer than even the waters of the West Philippine Sea: the Philippines, with its limited maritime and naval resources, is to keep constant watch over these waters. 

In spite of China’s aggressive actions – “dangerous maneuvers,” blocking, and the use of water cannons against Philippine government vessels – the Philippines has remained seemingly unfazed. 

“We seek no conflict with any nation, more so nations that purport and claim to be our friends but we will not be cowed into silence, submission, or subservience. Filipinos do not yield,” said Marcos in March 2024, after China blasted its strong water cannons during a Philippine mission to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. 

Beijing’s response has been to accuse the Philippines of instigating these encounters, as well as reneging on supposed deals. That, or pinning the blame for Manila’s new-found vigor in defending its sovereign rights on supposed American influence. 

Of the deals China has claimed, only one seems to be acknowledged, at least in part, by both sides – a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep the “status quo” in the South China Sea forged under former president Rodrigo Duterte. 

But that deal was informal and temporary. It also meant that the Philippines would not make the most of its hard-fought win in the 2016 Arbitral Ruling, which deemed China’s sweeping South China Sea claim, among other things, invalid. 

The 2016 Arbitral Ruling has been front and center of the Marcos administration’s policy in the South China Sea. 

Boat, Transportation, Vehicle
HARASSMENT. A Philippine Coast Guard vessel is ‘impeded and encircled’ by Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea on March 23, 2024.
What about ASEAN?  

Most prominent in the Marcos administration’s West Philippine Sea approach is its “transparency initiative,” or its effort to publicize – through official government releases and independent reports from journalists – China’s actions in the disputed waters. 

Countries like the US, Japan, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and members of the European Union, among others, are almost always quick to react and side with the Philippines whenever China uses aggressive actions – short of an armed attack – in the West Philippine Sea. 

Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo earlier told Rappler that the initiative has made “the rest of the world aware of the situation in the West Philippine Sea.” 

“This may not have been possible to that extent without this kind of transparency because they’ve been barely aware of this. I think they see the logic and consistency of our position and they see that our position is consistent with international law,” Manalo told Rappler in late April 2024 in an interview on the World View with Marites Vitug.

More countries have joined – in varying degrees – the list of those who believe in “rules-based order” and who have also publicly affirmed their support of the 2016 Arbitral Ruling. Rising Asian powerhouse India and nearby South Korea are among the latest to begin expressing support for the Philippines under the Marcos administration. 

What’s missing in the list? Southeast Asian countries – a fact that Beijing likes pointing out. 

Sue Thompson, an associate professor at the Australian National University whose research has focused on Southeast Asia, told Rappler that the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN)’s seeming inability to make a unified stand on the South China Sea, for or against China, shouldn’t be surprising. 

It’s not what it was made to do, after all. 

“ASEAN is there to provide peace and stability in the region, but it was never meant to be a security alliance,” said Thompson in an interview in March 2024. 

That’s not to say that ASEAN has remained totally silent as tensions in the South China Sea rise. Foreign ministers, in December 2023, issued a statement expressing concern over these rising tensions. 

Indonesia, where the ASEAN headquarters is located, cited the 2016 Arbitral Ruling in a diplomatic note to the United Nations in May 2020.

ASEAN bloc members have taken notice of the Philippines’ novel initiative, with a few asking Manila’s embassies for briefings on the situation in the West Philippine Sea. 

But there are some who’ve felt uneasy over how loud and public Manila has been in exposing China’s aggressive actions, based on conversations Rappler has had with diplomats. 

It’s not that they would find it hard to believe. Other claimant countries, after all, have also been subjected to China’s incursions. But many of them have chosen to keep it on the down low, much like Manila under former president Duterte.    

And while many of the claimants in the South China Sea belong to ASEAN, a bigger part of the bloc has no direct stake in the dispute. “Each individual nation-state within ASEAN will have their own relationship with China. And a lot of those relationships are based on economic ties,” Thompson said. 

ASEAN is China’s largest trading partner. China is also the top trading partner of several ASEAN members, including South China Sea claimants – the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. 

It’s to Beijing’s advantage when incursions and confrontations are toned down. It’s why China has always preferred bilateral discussions of disputes over multilateral methods. It’s also why Beijing seethed when Manila took the issue to court in 2013, which led to the 2016 Arbitral Award.

After six years of things playing out as it wanted under Duterte, Beijing is barely coming to terms with the Marcos administration’s loud and bold strategy – to shine the spotlight on incidents China wants kept in the shadows.

SUMMIT. The situation at the 18th East Asia Summit at the Jakarta Convention Center in Senayan, Jakarta in 2023. Media Center of ASEAN Summit 2023/Aditya Pradana Putra/pras/ratih.
Deals with Brunei, Vietnam

The Philippines and Vietnam, in the agreement from January 2024, promised to build on existing bilateral trust, confidence, and understanding through, among other things: 

  • Dialogue, meetings, or joint activities between its defense, military, and maritime law enforcement personnel 
  • Prior notification of any planned military operations in disputed areas
  • Exchange of information on a voluntary basis 
  • Protection of fisherfolk and marine resources 

In a press release, the Philippines’ Presidential Communications Office said Manila and Brunei’s Maritime Cooperation deal covers “pollution, skills training, research and information sharing.” Neither country offered details on what “skills training” and “information sharing” would cover, with the Philippines noting that the understanding is “crucial for maritime nations” like Brunei and the Philippines.

Gill said the agreement helps in bringing the focus back to Manila’s efforts to bring ASEAN to the forefront of its efforts in the West Philippine Sea. 

“The MoU will also illustrate that contrary to the region’s misperception, that the Philippines only wants to bring in external military powers into the region, Manila wants to deepen intra-regional maritime security cooperation with its neighbors to spearhead home grown solutions,” he said. 

It’s an important move when, according to research by the UK-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, the US and China are what drive the “significant increase” of military drills in Asia from 2023 and 2022. 

Marcos is set to keynote the IISS’ Shangrila Dialogues, the region’s premiere defense summit, on May 31.  – Rappler.com 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.