A Temporary Reprieve for the Philippines

Bilateral détente with China will be difficult to achieve and maintain despite an accord that relieves tension.

China and the Philippines agreed this week to exercise restraint in all statements and for all actions regarding their ongoing bilateral dispute in the South China Sea. As the result of an incident in which Chinese surveillance vessels interceded to prevent the arrest of fishermen by a Philippine navy ship, both countries have had naval assets stationed near an island chain for some weeks and have actively engaged in a war of words centered around one question — who owns the Scarborough Shoal?

While Beijing continues to claim that the territory, deep inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, is inalienably Chinese, it is clear that both sides are wary of escalating tensions any further.

The announcement, made Tuesday by the Philippine defense minister following talks with his Chinese counterpart, plainly aims to mitigate the possibility of sudden escalations over contested seabed territories and pave the way for a successful diplomatic outcome.

Yet, bilateral détente may be more difficult to achieve and maintain than this announcement suggests. After all, the dispute is but one facet of a larger set of challenges facing Southeast and East Asian states, with countries from Vietnam to the Philippines to Japan concerned about the troubling way in which China is partnering its maturing military capabilities with strong assertions about the extent of its territorial influence.

Taken individually, most questions of territorial sovereignty involving China face a problematic dynamic, as Beijing is clearly willing to use increasingly advanced naval forces as tools with which to leverage favorable outcomes in its bilateral relationships.

Although countries may be amenable to compromise or negotiated settlements with China, the use of Chinese ships and other assets in symbolic deployments in recent years creates a dilemma for would be negotiators and implies that China’s central leadership places high value on securing the ability to freely operate in these waters and discounts initiatives that involve a split settlement.

When coupled with recent reports that the China is actively building more sophisticated aircraft carrying and littoral craft, it is easy to see how bilateral negotiations with China have yet to see any significant progress in resolving territorial issues, with diplomatic tactics in the region hampered by imbalances of capabilities and the choice that all governments must face — to engage on China’s terms or to hedge.

So countries in the region have begun to refocus on multilateral efforts to resolve multiparty disputes. Australia and Japan, for example, have been active in producing rhetoric that encourages the construction of a multilateral dialogue through which China can be engaged.

Moreover, in preparing to deal with the broad implications of the region’s territorial and cultural disputes as a component of the “pivot” to Asia, the United States have sought to persuade their partners to unite to face the common challenges posed by China.

For the Philippines, this means now and in the future that there may be a flip side to exercising restraint over territorial issues, with a greater balance of capabilities present in dispute situations borne of multilateral cooperation.

Japan, for instance, has committed to engage with the Philippines on naval matters, with a goodwill fleet of three vessels from the Japanese Training Squadron visiting the island nation in days to come and joint development programs touted to amount to more than ten new patrol ships for the Philippine Navy within the year.

In terms of continuing to build the multilateral channels for dealing with territorial issues in the South China Sea, it is certainly possible that multilateral talks like those scheduled during the upcoming Shanghai Debate could yield developments.

However, the bottom line is that the Philippines and other countries in the region still face in the near term the problem of rising Chinese military capabilities and the assertive mindset that has so far pervaded Beijing’s dealings in the South China Sea.

So, while the ability of countries to protect their interests and amiably resolve disputes will surely come from multilateral coordination, the question of how effectively beneficial initiatives can be organized remains unanswered, at least for now, and makes any reprieve in dealings with China temporary at best.