Analysts say a wave of U.S. and Chinese military activity in the disputed South China Sea is making it difficult for the Philippines, which is at the heart of the maritime dispute, to stick to the neutral foreign policy it has developed over the past five years.
The U.S. Navy said on its website June 14 that the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group “is operating in the South China Sea. The strike group is conducting air flights, maritime strike exercises and coordinated training with ground and air units. It described the voyage as part of the Navy’s “regular presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
U.S. officials have said such exercises support Asian allies, including the Philippines, with which the United States has had a Mutual Defense Treaty since 1951. The U.S. conducted 10 such exercises last year.
The U.S. Naval Institute News (USNI News) reported June 10 that the Chinese Navy has increased surveillance of an artificial island military base in the South China Sea. The report said a Chinese intelligence-gathering vessel, a maritime patrol plane and another aircraft were present at Crossfire Reef (known in China as Yongshu Reef) in the Spratly Islands (known in China as the Spratlys). Manila holds 10 other islands and reefs in the Spratlys.
For a decade, the Philippines has been distressed by China’s reclamation of islands in the Spratlys for military purposes.
According to Philippine domestic media, in April this year, the Philippines sent four naval vessels to support coast guards and fishing boats near an unoccupied island in the Spratlys. In March, 220 Chinese vessels anchored on the reef. in 2019, a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Philippine fishing boat, and other vessels have at times pressured Philippine fishing activities to leave the disputed waters.
“China can slowly expand its maritime presence in the South China Sea using Chinese marine police, maritime militia and fishing fleets,” said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor of Asian studies at the University of New South Wales in Australia. China has already done so, he said. “These so-called gray zone operations …… are designed to get the Philippines used to submitting to Chinese maritime power because the Philippines is too weak” to fight back, Thayer said.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea waters that overlap with China’s self-proclaimed borderline. Conflicts involving the Philippines are particularly frequent because of its long coastline and the wide range of its fishing fleet.
When the U.S. Navy is present in the waters, “it sends assurances to the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries that the United States is in a position not to allow China to do as it pleases without any resistance,” said Herman Kraft, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Kraft said.
However, while Manila rejects Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over the part of the South China Sea closest to the western coast of the Philippine archipelago, it wants continued economic help from China, especially in terms of infrastructure.
Since taking office in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has railed against U.S. influence over his domestic policies, including his deadly anti-drug campaign. He has meanwhile forged a whole new friendship with China.
The Chinese embassy in Manila said Chinese direct investment in the Philippines reached $140 million last year, a 36 percent increase over 2019. The Philippines, largely a poor country, is struggling to fight the new crown epidemic while strengthening its infrastructure.
“Entering a new era, President Xi Jinping and President Duterte have met eight times to draw a grand strategic blueprint for the development of China-Philippine relations,” the Chinese embassy said June 9.
However, the maritime dispute between the two countries has increased public pressure within the Philippines against Duterte’s engagement with Beijing. In a survey last July, Quezon City-based research firm Social Weather Stations found that trust in the United States was “good,” while trust in China was “bad. “.
Scholars say China sees its friendship with the Philippines as a way to weaken U.S. influence in Asia. China claims sovereignty over about 90 percent of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway, based on historical fishing records. The waterway is rich in fishing resources and fossil fuel reserves. The United States has no claim to the waters.
China’s activities in the Spratlys may be more to counteract the U.S. than to target the Philippines, Craft said.
“Beijing will certainly complain about the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan crossing the South China Sea, but I suspect it will be more low-key in its disapproval of Manila’s deployment so as not to alienate Filipino voters ahead of next year’s presidential election. Much of this election could hinge on the Philippines’ relationship with Beijing,” said Sean King, vice president of the New York-based political consulting firm Park Strategies.
Due to term limits, Duterte must leave office next June, opening the door for candidates with other foreign policy views.
Duterte this week suspended the decision to cancel the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, which puts the Philippines at another diplomatic crossroads. the agreement, signed in 1999, paved the way for arms sales and joint exercises. Analysts have said Duterte, who was once adamant about scrapping the agreement, is now seeking to secure more favorable terms.
Yun Sun, a senior fellow in the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, said, “We have to wait for the results of the Philippine elections next year.” In the United States, she said, “the hope is that Duterte will continue to extend the moratorium on rescinding the agreement and that the next president will take a more rational position on the issue.”