During my visit to Hainan last December, the mood among Chinese officials was largely somber. Despite the triumphant launch of the country’s first indigenously-built aircraft carrier, attended by no less than President Xi Jinping, there was a profound sense of foreboding. The Chinese leader warned of the “grey rhinos” of domestic economic imbalances and “black swans” of unforeseen crises.
Beijing was also particularly worried about the South China Sea disputes, as smaller rivals began to reassert their claims. A visibly perturbed Chinese diplomat, referring to Kuala Lumpur’s bolt-from-the-blue extended continental shelf submission at the United Nations, asked, “What do you think about Malaysia’s legal move?” Another senior official asked me about nationalist sentiments in Southeast Asia and how to negotiate a mutually acceptable code of conduct in the disputed waters.
I saw no trace of premature triumphalism, but instead strategic sobriety. The Taiwanese election outcome as well as the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, which hammered China’s economy earlier this year, only reinforced expectations of a more sober, humbled, and inward-looking Beijing in 2020. Beginning in late-March, however, China stepped up its efforts to consolidate its sweeping claims across the South China Sea as soon as it contained the crisis at home.
The brazen strategic opportunism, with China’s neighbors and rivals now scrambling to contain the pandemic, has provoked outrage and pushback across the region and beyond. It has also punctured any lingering delusions about China’s strategic intentions and supposed “peaceful rise.” No less than Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, the most outspoken Beijing-friendly leader in Asia, has been forced to reassess his foreign policy.
Amid escalating disputes with Washington over human rights issues, the Philippine president initiated the abrogation of the decades-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States in February. Since the VFA provides the legal framework for large-scale American military presence on Philippine soil, Duterte’s unilateral decision, which completely circumvented the Philippine senate and other major stakeholders, threatened the full range of bilateral security cooperation, from traditional security to counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. The VFA’s termination would put an end to over 100 joint military activities scheduled for this year alone.
In a major foreign policy reversal, however, the Philippines has now suspended the VFA cancellation, which was supposed to take effect in August. Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. made it clear that the foreign policy about-face was based on “the President’s instruction.” In its formal letter to the U.S. Embassy in Manila, the Department of Foreign Affairs vaguely cited “political and other developments in the region” as the pretext for the decision.
It didn’t take long, however, for Philippine ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez to admit that “obviously” the Duterte administration is worried by “quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea, very clearly we see that.” Amid China’s escalating aggression, the Filipino diplomat clarified, “I think our governments have seen that it would be prudent for us to just simply suspend first any implementation of the termination.”
Beginning in March, China began its show of force by conducting large-scale naval drills in the South China Sea, unveiling new research facilities on its militarized islands in the Spratlys, and deploying giant coastguard vessels to disputed features, including the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal. In April, Chinese maritime law enforcement sunk and apprehended Vietnamese fishing boats and harassed Malaysian oil exploration activities. On top of this, China also announced two new administrative districts to reinforce its claims across the South China Sea.
The Scramble for Resistance
Though Duterte has rarely failed to express his gratitude to China, especially for provision of medical assistance amid the Covid-19 pandemic, top Filipino diplomats and defense officials have carefully followed these disturbing developments in the South China Sea. Alarmed by China’s unabashed opportunism, they upped the ante. First, the Department of Foreign Affairs issued an unprecedented “statement of solidarity” with Hanoi following China’s sinking of a Vietnamese vessel in early-April. The department condemned China’s “provocative” action and “fictional historical claims.” Weeks later, top military officials revealed that a Chinse vessel pointed its “fire control radar” at a Filipino warship earlier this year. A Filipino official condemned the near-encounter as “very hostile” and “unprovoked.”
The apparent alignment in threat perception between the Philippines’ foreign policy and defense establishment may have pressured Duterte to give the United States some more time. Following his recent high-profile visit to Thitu Island to inaugurate a new beaching ramp, Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana vowed to fortify the Philippines’ military and civilian facilities in the Spratlys, though specifying that there were no plans to deploy platforms and equipment of a scale comparable to those of China’s outposts.
Other regional states are also drawing the line. Malaysia has gradually shed its age-old “quiet diplomacy” by asserting a new extended continental shelf claim across portions of China’s nine-dash line, threatening arbitration, openly dismissing Beijing’s excessive claims as “ridiculous,” and publicly criticizing China’s harassment of its oil exploration activities in the area. In his strongly-worded public statement in late-April, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein underscored, “Malaysia remains firm in its commitment to safeguard its interests and rights in the South China Sea.” Even Malaysia’s king chimed in, calling on the government to “always [be] sensitive to the maritime domain and adopt a strategy that supports our geopolitical aspirations.”
For the first time, Indonesia has officially invoked the Philippines’ 2016 arbitration award at The Hague to directly question China’s expansive claims in the area. In its note verbale to the United Nations last month, Indonesia stated that “the Award of 12 July 2016 by the Tribunal [affirmed] that any historic rights that the People’s Republic of China may have had to the living and non-living resources were superseded by the limits of the maritime zones provided for by UNCLOS 1982.”
Just days after, the United States made a similar submission to the global body, where it argued that China’s claims in the South China Sea are “inconsistent with international law.” The Pentagon has also expanded its freedom of navigation operations and other presence across the disputed waters, including deploying B-1B bombers to patrol the area.
With the Chinese threat in mind, Australia and India recently signed a vital defense agreement as a “first step in deepening of the defense relationship,” particularly in the realm of maritime security. The gathering wave of resistance against China, however, lacks a center of gravity. The United States has yet to translate its naval and legal pushback into an overarching strategy which could unite China’s smaller rivals into a coherent force. Vietnam has struggled to leverage its ASEAN chairmanship to coordinate approaches in Southeast Asia due to travel and social distancing restrictions, and even found itself at odds with Malaysia in the recent three-way oil and gas standoff. Without an organizing principle, it remains to be seen whether or not the current pushback against China’s assertiveness can keep its momentum.