Why is the Philippines standing up to China on South China Sea dispute after years of close bilateral ties? 

Amid Chinese incursions in the South China Sea and in the waters of what the Philippines terms the West Philippine Sea, diplomats from the Philippines and China are poised to convene in Manila this week to air concerns linked to the disputed waters.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) of the Philippines is hosting the 23rd Philippines-China Foreign Ministry Consultations (FMC) on March 23 and the 7th Bilateral Consultations Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea on March 24.

The most recent FMC was held in 2019 while the last BCM happened in 2021. Based on a statement from the DFA, the meetings will entail a range of issues, including economic, people-to-people, maritime, security, and regional topics.  The FMC will adopt a more general strategy with regard to talks as it “reviews the overall relations and all aspects” of Philippine-China collaboration. 

Furthermore, the Philippines, which has legal sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea, is expected to cover during the BCM talks “maritime issues of concern to either side, including developments in the West Philippine Sea, and areas of possible maritime cooperation and confidence-building.”

In wake of Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s state visit to China in January this year, where he aired his views with Chinese leader Xi Jinping about matters linked to the South China Sea, the DFA declared that the impending meetings will be a fruit of that trip. 

Moreover, FMC and BCM “will highlight the goodwill between the Philippines and China to dialogue and move forward on practical measures.”

“As reflected in the joint statement of the state visit, the two leaders concurred that confidence-building measures such as the FMC and BCM would contribute to improving mutual trust and confidence,” DFA stated. 

“They also affirmed the importance of both mechanisms as venues for the Philippines and China to foster cooperation and greater understanding as well as ease tensions,” it added.

Before Marcos’ Beijing visit in January, his government had rallied for more military presence near the Spratly Islands to fend off China and had also complained to China over the latter’s method of “swarming” disputed islands with many boats, thus barring access to Filipino fishermen and making them unable to fish in their grounds. 

Observers anticipated Marcos to tap on January’s trip to recalibrate Philippine foreign policy, which under former president Duterte moved towards China and away from the U.S. While Marcos was warmly received by Xi and other members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing, he showed that he was not going to be a “pushover” in terms of articulating the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea. 

The president is evidently “inching away from the extreme pivot to China”, Renato Cruz De Castro, an international affairs analyst at De La Salle University in Manila, remarked.

However, China’s state-run Global Times boasted that all tension between China and the Philippines “collapsed on itself” upon Marcos’ visit.

While China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian penned in state-run People’s Daily that Beijing and Manila will “join hands to create a new golden era” for bilateral ties, De Castro contended that Beijing will remain unmoved on its stance regarding the contested South China Sea.

“At the end of the day, China’s goal is to force us to accept the fait accompli, that they will be operating within our exclusive economic zone,” De Castro admitted. 

De Castro’s views could be corroborated with statements by Philippine officials that revealed that although the tone of Marcos’ January visit to Beijing was cordial, he was more determined than his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte to assert Manila’s claims in what it calls the “West Philippine Sea.” 

Previously, Duterte has been perceived to have inched towards China during his stint as president, owing partly to U.S. denunciations of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses during his suppression of drugs. 

Additionally, Duterte had also threatened more than once to abandon the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement permitting U.S. troops to rotate into the Philippines.

In an address last May, Marcos indicated that he would not lose an inch of Philippine territory to any foreign power. His pledge was supported by advocates of a 2016 arbitral ruling invalidating China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Arguably, Marcos is walking a diplomatic tightrope between the U.S. and China, having to enhance military ties with the U.S. and maintain economic relations with Beijing. He chose to visit New York in September to address the United Nations (UN) General Assembly without calling it a state visit. Since assuming power, Marcos has twice met with U.S. President Joe Biden.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Philippines and promised Manila that Washington would defend the country if it were attacked in the South China Sea. Harris said that the U.S. would adhere to a 1951 bilateral defense treaty and protect Filipino ships against Chinese aggression.

Also, the Philippines has widened access for American troops and equipment to four more Philippine military bases, after the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan’s strained relations with Beijing.

Notwithstanding Beijing’s attempts in conducting activities in parts of the South China Sea that already fall within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), China and the U.S. have been involved in a competitive tussle for Philippine support. The latter regards China as its largest trading partner but has a defense treaty with its former colonial master, the U.S. 

If the U.S. and China engage in a conflict over Taiwan, the Philippines could become collateral damage as it is nearby. The country is vital to American efforts to pre-empt and fend off any Chinese forays into Taiwan, an island China claims as its own to be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Of the five U.S. treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific — Australia, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand — the Philippines is nearest to Taiwan, its northernmost land mass of Luzon just 200 kilometers away.

Randall Schriver, an analyst who served in the Trump administration as the top Pentagon official for East Asia, said Luzon is very important to the U.S. Army as a potential venue for rockets, missiles, and artillery systems that could be used to counter an amphibious incursion of Taiwan.

During the Cold War, the Philippines hosted some of the U.S.’s largest overseas bases, providing land for facilities essential to the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam. As time went on, Philippine nationalism prompted Washington to vacate those in the 1990s. 

Nonetheless, it is uncertain as to whether the Philippines would permit its territory to be used by the U.S. to defend Taiwan from China. Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to Washington and a relative of Marcos, said earlier that the country would allow U.S. forces to use its bases should a Taiwan conflict happen only “if it is important for us, for our own security.”

South-east Asia specialist Gregory Poling at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies opined that it would be very tough for the Philippines to remain on the fence in a Taiwan conflict given its proximity to the island and its treaty obligations to the US. 

“They have commitments to the Americans under the alliance,” Poling said. “So if they want American support in the South China Sea, the Americans will expect Philippine support on Taiwan.”

The country is also the most likely destination for people escaping Taiwan, and the approximately 150,000 Filipinos living in Taiwan would be susceptible if China launches a military campaign on the self-ruled island.

Photo credit: iStock/ vuk8691. Filipino fishermen.

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