In a stunning geopolitical reversal, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced a “separation” from the United States during a four-day visit to Beijing in October. Prefigured by Duterte’s less-than-civil tone towards the US, the pivot to China is a turn away from decades of military and economic cooperation with the United States, and occurs amid ongoing tension between China and the Philippines over territorial and access rights in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping followed a recent international legal ruling vindicating the Philippines’ rights to the Scarborough Shoal and denying China’s unilateral claim to everything within a “nine dash line” that encompasses nearly ninety percent of the South China Sea. Although China does not recognize the ruling, the case represents a victory for a relatively small nation against the region’s great power.
What, then, accounts for the shift in the contentious Philippine-Chinese relationship? China’s ongoing military activities in the South China Sea offer one immediate explanation. Speaking at the China Forum on October 19, Dr. Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute outlined some recent incidents in which Chinese coast guard and naval units confronted Philippine and Vietnamese fishing vessels in disputed waters by ramming them, firing on them with water cannons, and attacking their crews with electric batons. China continues to construct airstrips and military installations on artificial and reclaimed islands in the contested Spratly island chain. China’s apparently unchecked ambitions to expand its military presence in the South China Sea threatens to upend the US-led regional security order. “I do think that the weaker the US appears in the region, the greater the chances are for current allies to reconsider the safety of their security relations with the United States,” said Dr. Cropsey, addressing the possibility of conflict between the US and China in the South China Sea. “More likely is that China will continue its effort to turn the international waters of the East and South China Seas into territorial waters.”
Su Xiaokang attributed China’s efforts in the South China Sea to the environmental and economic results of policies pursued by China since Deng Xiaoping, calling China the “world’s biggest dumpster” and linking China’s One Belt, One Road initiative to the need to access new markets. “China wants to keep expanding into the world,” said Mr. Su, “because it has produced cheap products at the cost of its own natural resources, and polluted its own country and land.”
Dr. Maochun Miles Yu of the US Naval Academy expanded on the political-military dynamic of the South China Sea crisis, saying that China views the crisis as a “zero sum game” between itself and the United States for dominance in the western Pacific. Despite China’s military buildup and increased operations in the South China Sea, Dr. Yu predicted that a potential conflict would alienate China diplomatically, since other regional countries would ally with the United States. He identified a fundamental American interest in the crisis, saying, “Freedom of navigation is built in the American dream.”
China’s militarization of the South China Sea is a threat to regional stability; however, the government also deploys a host of soft power tactics, ranging from economic to diplomatic pressure, to exert influence in the region and legitimize its claims to the South China Sea.
This soft power approach is evident in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN allows the smaller Southeast Asian countries to find strength in numbers to counter Chinese activity in the South China Sea. However, China pursues bilateral relations with individual ASEAN states, using “checkbook diplomacy” to prevent certain ASEAN members from supporting declarations and actions against China. Scott Harold of RAND notes that China uses soft power to “[make] it clear for some weaker, smaller, poorer, more corrupt states that it is going to make them pay costs in their relations with China” if they support efforts to address the crisis.
During Duterte’s red-carpet visit to China, the Philippines and China signed agreements worth $13.5 billion covering infrastructure, trade, tourism, fishing, and development loans. Not discussed in depth? The South China Sea. Instead, both nations agreed to restart bilateral talks about the crisis. It would appear that lucre and luster are convincing tools in China’s efforts to dominate conversation and action in the region.
China’s effective deployment of diplomatic and economic power, backed up by its military posturing, makes it difficult for its neighbors, even with the support of regional organizations, to counter its moves in the South China Sea. In the absence of more effective international support, the nations of Southeast Asia may drift further into China’s embrace, undermining international rule of law, freedom of navigation, and expanding the global reach of the world’s largest communist state.