Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.06.07

Confrontations Between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea

There is a friction between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The similarities between this dispute and the Senkaku Islands issue are instructive for Japan.

The Scarborough Shoal incident began when an armed Chinese fisheries patrol vessel intercepted a Philippine Coast Guard vessel that had been trying to arrest Chinese fishing vessels. The Philippine side claims that the Chinese fishing vessels were engaged in illegal operations, while China argues that they were in a lagoon attempting to avoid a storm. As of May 28th and after seven weeks, both parties remain at a stand-off.

The Chinese side appears to regard the Filipinos as impudent. On the web, incendiary remarks abound, including "China is not a paper dragon," "Filipino military, cast off the American military armor," "the Chinese side is now in the second stage of war preparation," and "China has issued a final warning."

We can naturally assume that the Philippines are hoping for help from the United States. The two countries concluded a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951, and based on the Treaty, their militaries carry out joint exercises several times a year, including recently, from April 16 through April 27, off the coast of the Philippines and right after tensions had arisen as a result of the Scarborough Shoal incident.

Furthermore, on April 30, the two countries engaged in consultations between their respective foreign and defense secretaries. This was a so-called 2+2 meeting, similar to the ones that have taken place many times between Japan and the United States, but this was the first meeting for the Philippines and the U.S. The joint statement released at the conclusion of the meeting stated that the two countries reaffirmed their common interest in maintaining freedom of navigation, subscribed to a rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas through peaceful processes within the framework of international law, reaffirmed their obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and committed to enhancing cooperation in their collective defense. At the same time, the United States noted that it was its policy not to intervene into territorial disputes between the Philippines and the third countries. Without question, this 2+2 meeting strengthened the position of the Philippines with respect to the Scarborough Shoal dispute.

China has loathed U.S. intervention into its regional maritime disputes with various South East Asian countries, and it has declared that the South China Sea is China's "core interest." While the full import of that assertion is not clear, it has been explained that China's "interest cannot yield to other countries" and China has stated that it would not tolerate such a harmful act by the United States.

For its part, the United States has stated that peace and security, as well as the freedom of navigation in the region, is in the interest of the United States, and its position is to consult and cooperate with nations in Southeast Asia.

Russia is also showing interest in the strained situation over the Scarborough Shoal. The Russian Ambassador to the Philippines has remarked that, like the United States, it is not a party to the dispute but "we believe the freedom of navigation is one of the aspects of a solution to the larger problem of the South China Sea, which should be secured by the regional countries, first and foremost," and that "Russia would favor a peaceful, negotiated solution by the regional countries, by the countries involved themselves, first and foremost, on the basis of talks and dialogue,"

How are we to interpret his remarks? First, Russia may have lent support to China, which opposes U.S. intervention. Russia and China are not directly opposing the United States, but they have expressed their objections to the positions taken by the United States and other western nations regarding the so-called "Arab Spring" democratization movements and with respect to Myanmar, and they may be extending those objections to the South China Sea.

There is another aspect to Russia's position, however. Russia is a Pacific nation and its activities, though currently not so conspicuous, may become much more dynamic in the future. When Russia's relations with China were antagonistic, Russia developed a close relationship with Vietnam and used Vietnam's naval port. Russia still maintains good relations with Vietnam and is cooperating with Vietnam in oil exploration in the South China Sea. Southeast Asia is also an arms market for Russia. It is also highly likely that the number of Russian ships passing through the South China Sea will increase in the future.

China is alarmed about interference by the United States regarding regional issues, but China clashes more frequently with Vietnam, which cooperates with Russia, than with the Philippines, so the interests of China and Russia are not congruent.

On the surface, the Russian Ambassador's remarks sound as if Russia is demonstrating its consideration for China's position, as an outsider, and that it is concurring with China, which abhors further increases in U.S influence in the region. When you scratch the surface, however, it becomes readily apparent that the interests of Russia do not match those of China. Furthermore, Russia is facing the major strategic issue of how to strengthen its activities in the Pacific, not limited to the South China Sea, and domestically, arguments are being made for a well-formulated strategy. President Putin, upon assuming the presidency, has indicated that he will focus on Asia Pacific. Therefore, it is possible that, in the future, Russia may no longer regard itself as an outsider to the South China Sea.