In what might be an event soon forgotten by the international community, China’s paramilitary forces once again demonstrated their willingness to use force to intimidate other countries and risk escalation. Although the specifics of the incident remain sketchy, reports indicate that on March 27 a speedboat, presumably operated by the China Coast Guard, fired seven times upon the unarmed Princess Johann, a Filipino fishing trawler, while the vessel was operating near Union Banks in the Spratly Islands, which is near Gaven Reef – one of China’s newly built artificial islands. It is unknown whether the incident occurred within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, international waters, or the territorial sea of a disputed feature. What is clear, however, is that incidents akin to what occurred at Union Banks could undermine the recent warming of relations between China and the Philippines, and underscore the need for a binding Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
The Union Banks incident received widespread media coverage in the Philippines. Several articles repeated a familiar narrative that paints China as the perennial bully out to intimidate defenseless Filipino fishermen. The Philippine press often takes a hard stance against China, whose territorial and maritime ambitions have stirred nationalism and soured public opinion in the Philippines. Several Filipino journalists have taken it a step further and criticized Manila’s apparent weakness in countering China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
The governments of both countries were noticeably reserved when addressing the confrontation. Beijing rarely responds first to events such as these, preferring to keep them from the public eye and only respond after another country has publicized an incident. While the Union Banks incident remains under official investigation, Manila’s response has been muted. Such restraint is expected as both countries have publicly pledged to peacefully settle their maritime row. This diplomatic approach has resulted in key gains for the Philippines, including Chinese investment in major Philippine infrastructure projects and greater access for Filipino fishermen in the waters near Scarborough Shoal, where they were frequently barred from operating since 2012.
Yet the vigor with which the Philippine media have covered this and other maritime incidents may be a harbinger of future problems. President Rodrigo Duterte has reinforced his legitimacy as a strong and decisive leader by mobilizing nationalism. The anti-colonial populism that undergirds his support has considerable implications for both domestic and foreign policy. Duterte’s efforts to tap into the lingering anti-American nationalism that was more prominent during the Cold War while simultaneously seeking to pivot toward China could quickly unravel, should his personal political narrative diverge from popular sentiment.
Duterte’s audacity has won him popularity among the Filipino people, but incidents like the one that occurred near Union Banks may force him to choose between catering to domestic nationalist sentiments and pursing closer relations with China. Manila and Beijing have feuded repeatedly over competing claims, and the Union Banks episode is merely the latest in a long series of events driven by territorial and maritime disputes. It was revealed a few weeks prior to the Union Banks confrontation that Chinese state-owned survey vessels were observed in 2016 operating in a zig-zag pattern consistent with survey operations at Benham Rise. The area is part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf, and the behavior of the Chinese vessels suggests that they were mapping the sea bottom, which is illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Manila responded by dispatching the BRP Ramon Alcaraz to patrol the area.
Manila’s current effort not to play up the Union Banks incident makes sense for a country seeking closer ties with Beijing, but such discretion might not be possible in the future. Subsequent incidents between the China Coast Guard and Filipino fishing vessels could go viral in the Philippine media, and force Duterte to respond to calls from the populace to more forcibly secure the country’s interests.
A deliberate Chinese provocation is unlikely in the coming months. At present, China appears to be consolidating its position in the South China Sea rather than seeking to further assert its claims. It is unlikely that Beijing will purposely rock the boat before the 19th Party Congress this fall. In the run-up to that convocation, which will determine whether Xi Jinping can further strengthen his power so he can have a freer hand in his second term, Beijing is expected to focus on preserving stability and seek to avoid any escalation of tensions with its neighbors.
Even so, new incidents cannot be ruled out. China has shown a past willingness to deploy its paramilitary assets to exercise greater control over disputed waters, which has historically elicited a strong reaction from the Filipino public. Further complicating matters is the annual fishing moratorium that China has enforced since the 1990s and that extends into the northern portion of South China Sea. The most recent iteration of the ban went into effect on May 1st and covers Scarborough Shoal – a rock entitled under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea that is claimed by both China and the Philippines. Although both sides have been tempered in their response to the Union Banks incident, Chinese enforcement of the ban against Filipino fishermen or other forms of coercive behavior in disputed waters could spell disaster for the honeymoon period in China and the Philippines’ newfound fondness for each other.
Formally recognized mechanisms are needed to mitigate the potentially destabilizing consequences of future incidents. A binding COC in the South China Sea would help to regulate the behavior of vessels and reduce the likelihood of such incidents. It would also provide the region with a more effective accord than the existing non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties that was agreed to fifteen years ago. In addition, China and ASEAN should work to expand the 2014 Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea – which outlines procedures for preventing collisions and reducing the potential for escalation if incidents occur between naval vessels – to coast guard and other law enforcement vessels. Combined these measures could serve to forestall unforeseen confrontations down the road that could spark friction between China and the Philippines.