The Philippines’ Transparency Over the South China Sea: Quo Vadis?

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The Philippines’ Transparency Over the South China Sea: Quo Vadis?

Manila’s transparency strategy needs to go beyond “name and shame” campaigns.

The Philippines’ Transparency Over the South China Sea: Quo Vadis?

In this photo released by the Philippine Coast Guard, a China Coast Guard vessel fires a water cannon at a Philippine supply ship in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, Dec. 10, 2023.

Credit: X/Jay Tarriela

The Philippines – outspoken in its opposition to Chinese territorial expansion in the South China Sea – has found itself embroiled in a series of maritime standoffs with Beijing. On multiple occasions, China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels have blocked the Philippines’ attempts to deliver supplies and construction materials to the BRP Sierra Madre, a navy ship that was intentionally grounded at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea in 1999. A blatant violation of international law occurred when CCG ships even fired water cannons at Philippine supply boats operating within Manila’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Following the flare-ups, Manila has adopted a clever approach to “name and shame” Beijing’s maritime intrusive activities. The Southeast Asian country has invited Filipino news journalists to turn the spotlight on China’s belligerent actions in the strategic waterway. Although both sides agreed in a January meeting to de-escalate tensions via improving maritime communication and dialogues, Jay Tarriela, the Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson, recently underscored that the Philippines’ transparency initiative “remains to be the same.” His remarks indicate that Manila will keep upholding this policy of publicizing Beijing’s dangerous and provocative maneuvers against the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

The term “transparency” and what it entails deserves attention. On X, Tarriela clarified that “national interest – the protection of the Philippines’ maritime rights” is at the forefront of the country’s transparency efforts, and argued that by taking these measures, Manila could safeguard itself “from political manipulation and disinformation.” By pointing the finger at China’s aggression, the Philippines discloses “which party is really responsible for raising tensions and increasing the likelihood of a kinetic conflict.” 

Beyond the realm of cognition, however, what other long-term gains could the Philippines reap? It remains unclear if any aggressive actions against the PCG have been averted by this transparency endeavor. In reality, China has been prepared to sacrifice short-term reputational gains in order to “support maritime claims that have longer lasting implications.”

Additionally, the concept of “transparency” is complex and nuanced. Jonathan Malaya, the Philippines’ National Security Council Spokesperson, categorized Manila’s firm stance as “measured transparency.” The public is led to believe by the Philippines’ official line that transparency is “not something that is provocative or escalatory” and that the transparency initiative has been “institutionalized.” In other words, the disclosure of Beijing’s aggressive actions is done in a “measured” fashion to avoid public panic or misunderstanding, as noted by Tarriela, the PCG spokesperson. In short, this “measured transparency” revolves around the Philippines’ prudent approach toward raising public awareness of China’s vessel actions, where choices were made after rigorous assessments of practical conditions. 

Yet some analysts have characterized the Philippines’ bold moves as not measured but “assertive transparency.” It appears that this wording is meant to highlight the Philippines’ robust and courageous responses to China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, when Manila is shining light on China’s gray zone activities, and calling for international support vis-à-vis Manila’s rights and sovereignty. The idea is that these efforts would eventually impose severe costs on Beijing’s reputation. 

Yet, this language might not give Manila much room to maneuver should it seek to ease tensions with China, let alone court China for economic interests. Hence, attempts by the Marcos administration to defuse tensions without jeopardizing its political influence may put Manila in a diplomatic conundrum.

When it comes to countering Beijing’s false narratives and gray zone tactics, “measured transparency” refers to techniques that are both prudent and well-calibrated, while “assertive transparency” indicates a proactive response and unwavering position against coercive actions. Put simply, the former is more vigilant, while the latter is more forceful. So, how exactly can the Philippines define a policy that is both sensible and steadfast? One can argue that the two terms are practically interchangeable, but the subtle implications behind each one cannot be overlooked. Good phrasing and clear elucidation provide officials, policymakers, academics, and the public with a foundational basis that is useful for comprehensive understanding – a requisite condition for taking relevant actions.

Another worry is that it is still unclear if “transparency” is a thorough and long-term strategy or just an approach, a tactic, or a ploy to draw attention to China’s muscle-flexing in the South China Sea. Are the Philippines’ efforts geared toward bringing attention to the boiling cauldron on a regional and global scale? Is this newfound policy innovation a reflection of the incumbent government’s desire to make China moderate its aggressive actions? It is important for the public and regional nations, particularly ASEAN nations and the Philippines’ like-minded states, to be knowledgeable and accurate regarding the Marcos administration’s long-term goal. This strategy, should the Philippines decide that’s what it is, should entail a comprehensive framework and a defined course of action.

A recalibrated approach to navigate tensions with China is necessary, as it could make clear to the public and regional countries the specific objectives the Philippines aims to achieve. A good transparency strategy should not be centered around “name and shame” campaigns. Instead, it should focus on building confidence and truth among the Philippines’ partners in the South China Sea – and encouraging other claimant states to publicize China’s maritime coercion as well. Here, China’s reactions and restraints, and the degree of support the Philippines get from other countries, should be considered indicators of the transparency initiative’s success. 

Currently, the Marcos administration needs to update this institutionalizing strategy with thorough elaborations, which could help bolster Manila’s stance, bring more international pressure to counter Beijing’s aggression, and dampen China’s malign influence through joint endeavors between Manila and like-minded states.

Though the phrasing is dubious, the Marcos administration’s deft handling of the skirmishes with Beijing deserves commendation. The incumbent administration has become more vocal in defending the Philippines’ maritime claims, in contrast to former President Rodrigo Duterte’s dubious stance and reluctance to confront Beijing over the South China Sea row. Manila’s courageous move exemplifies how a middle power could stand up to defend its interests even when obstructed by a much more powerful giant. Other claimant states in the South China Sea could follow suit by studying and adopting Manila’s approach, particularly by exposing China’s aggressive behaviors to both the domestic and international media.