Ahead of this month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and ASEAN summits, regional maritime tensions have taken a dangerous turn, potentially setting off a new round of confrontation between relevant powers. A month after the meeting of Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in Washington, during which the two leaders signed off on new confidence-building measures and reached an agreement on cybersecurity, the United States pushed ahead with a much-anticipated freedom of navigation (FON) operation within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese-occupied feature in the South China Sea. Beijing responded with a flurry of diplomatic condemnations, with top naval commander Adm. Wu Shengli warning that China will “have to take all necessary measures to safeguard [its] sovereignty and security” in the South China Sea.

A few days after the FON operation, a tribunal at Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague announced that it will exercise jurisdiction in the Philippines’ arbitration case against China. Beijing’s response was furious, with the government mouthpiece Xinhua news agency warning that Philippine-China relations have been “sinking to a historic low.”

When they meet at the APEC and ASEAN summits, leaders from the Philippines, China, and the United States will have to pull off a delicate balancing act between standing their ground (or appearing to do so) on the South China Sea, on one hand, and exploring creative ways to avoid unwanted escalation, arrive at a sustainable mechanism to effectively manage (if not resolve) the disputes, and focus on common areas of interest, on the other.

Prospects for Dialogue

 Fortunately, despite rising tensions in the wake of last month’s FON operation, both Washington and Beijing have maintained robust communications channels to avoid accidental clashes, with President Obama seeking a direct meeting with his Chinese counterpart to specifically discuss the management of South China Sea disputes. So one can expect constant coordination between the two powers in the course of future U.S. operations in the contested area.

Meanwhile, China has been confronting a legal coup from the Philippines. The tribunal’s decision to move forward with the Philippines’ case against China has further complicated bilateral relations, which are arguably the most toxic in Asia. During his short (and first) trip to Manila to prepare the ground for Xi’s APEC visit, Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized the Philippines’ arbitration case as “a knot that has impeded the improvement and development of Sino-Philippine relations.” And it is not yet clear whether President Benigno Aquino will hold his first ever bilateral summit with Xi on the sidelines of the APEC leaders meeting.

Now that the jurisdiction hurdle has been (partially) overcome, the Philippines has paved the way for a “legal multiplier,” exposing China to similar suits by other claimant states such as Vietnam, which has been openly threatening to do so since last year. Even Indonesia is mulling a similar legal maneuver against China. And the Philippines’ plan to sign a strategic partnership (with a focus on maritime security cooperation) with Vietnam, another claimant state stuck in a bitter dispute with China, is surely going to irk China. The planned agreement, which could be inked on the sidelines of APEC, is designed to signal the determination of the two Southeast Asian countries to fortify their emerging alliance amid China’s unbridled assertiveness in the South China Sea. The Philippine Supreme Court could also rule on the constitutionality of the 10-year U.S.-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement two days before Obama lands in Manila for APEC, potentially giving Aquino and him something to celebrate, to China’s displeasure. If the Supreme Court strikes down the agreement and demands Senate ratification, the two allies will have to urgently explore alternative mechanisms for enhancing their maritime security cooperation.

A Bumpy Ride

The coming weeks are poised to be a bumpy ride for Philippine-China relations, especially as their respective leaders try to project toughness before their domestic audiences amid the intensifying disputes in the South China Sea. In multilateral fora, China has taken a hardline position that the disputes should not be mentioned. In an echo of the 2012 debacle at the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Cambodia, China last month managed to sabotage efforts to address the South China Sea during the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus, leading to a failure to even issue a joint statement.

The majority of countries in the region, including non-claimant states like Singapore and Indonesia, are concerned about FON in the area, and have expressed worries over China’s unilateral overhaul of the regional seascape. But China’s diplomatic intransigence is undermining existing regional platforms for dialogue under the aegis of ASEAN.

The forthcoming summits could still provide a crucial breathing space – an opportune platform for much-needed engagement among concerned parties, including the United States, which has become more involved in the South China Sea disputes than ever. As the host of the APEC summit, and with a bilateral meeting between Xi and Aquino expected, Manila has a rare opportunity to, at the very least, establish much-needed confidence building measures with Beijing in order to manage their increasingly contentious maritime disputes. Proactive diplomacy has become more urgent than ever.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.