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New World Order: South China Sea, Part 1

For all intents and purposes, the post-WWII world order is dead. COVID-19 is perhaps the most consequential global disruption since the last world war and has left humanity spinning in a vacuum with every country left fending for itself. The pandemic has laid bare any pretensions of civility as each country fights for survival even to the point of closing its borders to friend or foe alike. The United Nation’s (UN) has gone missing and its inability to unite the world through the World Health Organization (WHO) whose credibility has been tarnished by political skirmishes between world powers.

World leaders will have an opportunity to craft a new world order that will define new alliances, new regional orders, and trading partners. It is through such prospects that the upcoming presidential elections become such of utmost importance.

In the 2022 Philippine presidential elections, China’s militarization of the South China Sea will take center stage as President Rodrigo Duterte’s anointed successor will battle the opposition’s candidate which will most likely be the current vice president, Leni Robredo. Duterte’s anointed will follow the same path that he has taken, further embrace of the alliance he has cultivated with China while keeping the United States at bay.

VP Robredo on the other hand, will paint China’s overly adventurous display of military power in the South China Sea as something bad for the Philippines and will sound the alarm about the perils to the democratic state of continuing such close alliance. She will rely on old alliances with the West and invoke keeping existing treaties and agreements. But, as the post-COVID-19 new international order unfolds, she will find her strategy on a tourniquet given new realities.

The South China Sea issue is a thorny one and a defining divide between Duterte and Robredo and their allies. Despite the harsh reality of breaking bread with China, the Philippines under any of these protagonists will be helpless against a resolute China and impotent United States. China has been waiting in the wings since the U.S. closed its bases in the Philippines in 1992. Unfortunately for Robredo, her position is tied to history and could be disadvantageous to her election strategy.

Although China’s first uncontested intrusion was in 1996 (under President Fidel Ramos) when it moved a giant oil rig on Recto Bank (which is part of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial waters), China’s corrupt intent against the Philippines didn’t really see a beach head until it began to unravel during the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo presidency. Arroyo practically opened the country to China’s exploitation. China’s intent on Recto Bank was the large petroleum deposit underneath it, but the mining agreement Arroyo entered into with China in 2005 really paved the way (no pun intended) for China’s unimpeded military adventures in the South China Sea.

It was classic Chinese economic warfare as it greased the Philippines and fried it with its own fat. Arroyo allowed 36 Chinese mining companies, some state owned, to operate in the country. The biggest of them, were in Zambales near the Scarborough Shoal (of the Spratly Islands) while others were in the Visayas and Mindanao. One of the companies set up a $100 million nickel processing plant in Masinloc and another in Botolan where a similar plant was constructed to also mine for cobalt in addition to nickel. In the process, they leveled a whole mountain, destroyed rivers for precious metals but more importantly, allowed the Chinese to ship the soil from the mines and used it to build the military bases and observation post on the South China Sea.

With open arms, Arroyo hailed the “golden era’ of cooperation with the Chinese. Part of the deal was to provide infra loans and develop the Philippine agricultural sector with exclusive marketing of the products back to China. One of Arroyo’s biggest sin was entering into a joint maritime cooperation that allowed the Chinese to map out the petroleum reserves in Philippine territories and provided access to the disputed islands.

The results of the joint maritime seismic study was never shared with the Philippines under some technicalities but it formed part of China’s strategy in the South China Sea. When President Benigno Aquino III became president, he went after President Arroyo for all her sins, got her arrested and jailed only to be found “not guilty” later during the current administration. She regained her power by representing her home province of Pampanga, became Speaker of the House during Duterte’s term, and now one of Duterte’s economic advisors. Thus, the Chinese strategy can be traced to a continuation of Arroyo’s policies.

A critical question is why was Arroyo allowed to be sucked into the Chinese orbit and therefore allowed the militarization of the South China Sea? The genesis of when the dragon entered the Philippine domain is complicated but simple one. The American president then was George W. Bush who invaded Iraq in 2003 with the “coalition of the willing.” The Philippines joined the coalition under Arroyo who was invited to the White House after the invasion in May 2003. The honeymoon soured quickly, however, when Arroyo pulled out of the “willing” in 2004 (albeit under China’s prodding) and Bush subsequently distanced from her. America’s preoccupation with the wars in the Middle East allowed China to woe the Philippines and pursue its strategy in the South China Sea.

During President Aquino’s tenure, several significant events had taken place that ignited the situation in the South China Sea. If Arroyo was pliant to China, Aquino was the opposite. First, Aquino’s passage of the Archipelagic Baseline Act in 2009 clearly angered China for it included regime of island that are in China’s claimed islands. While Aquino’s purpose was laudable, he practically challenged China to act.

He made it worse by discontinuing the seismic study jointly undertaken by the Philippines and China, a reversal of the Arroyo policy that China thought, rightly or wrongly, was an abrogation of the agreement.

Furthermore, Aquino pursued a policy of cooperation among the other claimants of the Reed Bank but then entered into a joint oil exploration venture with a UK oil company by justifying that Recto Bank is under Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and not part of the disputed Spratly Islands. China viewed such unilateral action as a violation of the tripartite agreement signed in 2005 under Arroyo.

It finally came to head in 2012 when a Philippine surveillance plane sighted Chinese fishing vessels anchored in a lagoon at Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal). The newly acquired Philippine Navy ship BRP Gregorio del Pilar was dispatched to the area to arrest them but Chinese Maritime Ships intervened, surrounding the shoal effectively creating a stand-off. Despite several attempts to diffuse the tension, both sides would not budge until the United States brokered a deal for both sides to leave the shoal. The Philippines abided by it but the Chinese stayed. The never left the island again. To be continued…

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