Beware the Illusion of China-Philippines South China Sea Breakthroughs

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Beware the Illusion of China-Philippines South China Sea Breakthroughs

Advances at a recent meeting are much more modest than suggested and conceal the significant challenges that remain.

Beware the Illusion of China-Philippines South China Sea Breakthroughs
Credit: Malacanang Photo

As expected, the convening of the second iteration of a China-Philippines dialogue to manage the South China Sea issue this week has led to some sensationalist headlines about breakthroughs both sides have made. In fact, a closer and more cautious reading suggests that the advances are much more modest than suggested and conceal the significant challenges that remain.

As I have noted repeatedly before in these pages, the idea of some sort of Sino-Philippine deal on the South China Sea – be it understandings to deescalate tensions temporarily or a proposals to jointly explore and exploit resources – is not new and has in fact been discussed in some form or another since the 1980s (See: “Beware the New China-Philippines South China Sea Deal”).

But it has no doubt been given fresh impetus over the past couple of years, with the Duterte government looking to manage the issue as part of a broader warming of ties with China and Beijing looking to reciprocate while also continuing its broader assertiveness in the South China Sea while trumpeting a so-called ‘cooling down’ period (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s China-US Rebalance”).

As part of that wider context, both sides had agreed to set up a Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea back in 2016. The inaugural iteration of the mechanism took place in Guiyang, China, back in May 2017, and it was supposed to be held every six months, alternating between China and the Philippines.

On February 13, both sides finally convened the second meeting of the BCM, which was actually supposed to be held last December. Both sides touted progress they had made following the meeting, with the Philippines eager to demonstrate that it is successfully managing this aspect of ties despite domestic and international criticism, and China  looking to once again advance its ‘cooling down’ narrative in the South China Sea into 2018 (See: “Beware the Illusion of South China Sea Calm”). Some media accounts also hyped up the significance of the meeting and the advances made therein.

In fact, the progress made appears much more modest than is being portrayed, and the focus on those modest gains also obscures the significant challenges that remain.

First, the extent of current progress being made should not be overstated. Some of the alleged ‘breakthroughs’ mentioned in media accounts are actually not new at all, such as the agreement for ASEAN and China to begin negotiations on a code of conduct (CoC) early next month, which was in fact already agreed to at the 20th ASEAN-China Summit last year in Manila. Further, it is worth repeating that even though a CoC might make sense for ASEAN and China to pursue as a confidence-building measure, its utility would likely be quite limited (See: “Will a China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct Really Matter?”).

Other advances also look more modest than they are being portrayed in some media accounts. Indeed, beyond vaguely noting that both sides had found “a number of possible cooperative initiatives” under the technical working groups in various areas – including marine environmental protection, fisheries, scientific research, and oil and gas – the joint press release actually read quite similar to previous discussions both sides have had.

Second, the challenges that lie ahead for any kind of bilateral advance on the South China Sea should not be underestimated. To be sure, there is room for progress in areas that constitute more ‘low hanging fruit’ relatively speaking for both sides, such as scientific research, and we might see some collaboration concretize at some point.

But other areas like oil and gas will be tougher. Beyond the specifics of how a joint development agreement would be worked out, here is still a bitter aftertaste left from the last time China and the Philippines went down this road in the 2000s, given that once the deal began to unravel, Beijing quickly reverted back to its unilateral assertiveness at Manila’s expense (See: “The Danger of China-Philippines South China Sea Joint Development”). Though the Philippines does need to address its energy security needs eventually, both sides are likely to move more cautiously on this front because of potential complications therein.

Third, and more generally, beyond the consultation mechanism itself, managing bilateral ties on this front still remains a significant challenge. Most notably, with China’s militarization of the South China Sea showing no signs of stopping, the Duterte government will continue to face international and domestic scrutiny as it seeks to warm ties with Beijing, making any significant advances on the South China Sea more difficult. This is true not just of the Philippines, but for Southeast Asian states more generally, who are looking to advance confidence-building measures (See: “What’s Behind the New ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise?”).

Indeed, just days before the meeting, fresh photos surfaced showing the extent of Chinese militarization of its artificial islands that made headlines in the Philippines and around the world, just as we also saw the kicking off of ASEAN meetings held in Singapore that placed greater attention on the South China Sea issue, as well as controversy around specific issues in Sino-Philippine ties such as research and naming of Benham Rise. As a result, in the lead up to the meeting, the Duterte government has had to fend off accusations that it is not being tough enough on Beijing. Most strikingly, ahead of the talks, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque even went as far as to questionably contend that the talks were not a manifestation of warming Sino-Philippine relations but evidence that “we are not being soft on China.”

To be sure, the modest progress made so far and the significant challenges that remain do not rule out the possibility that both sides could make greater inroads later on. Indeed, as I have observed previously, many of the inroads we have seen in Sino-Philippine ties under Duterte would have seemed unimaginable right before he took office, even if we have seen some of them tried by past Philippine leaders before him as well. But given the history of bilateral ties, the limits of advances made so far, and the difficulties that lie ahead, we should be cautious about buying into the hype of Sino-Philippine breakthroughs in the South China Sea.