Chinese depredations in the South China Sea are giving sleepless nights to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr of the Philippines, one of the littoral countries of the region.
The democratic countries around the world have, however, resolved to stand by the Philippines and other nations in the South China Sea region that are facing threats from China and uphold the rules-based international order. The Chinese threats in the South China Sea region, therefore, are going to be defeated in the long run.
A hapless President Marcos admitted on January 19, 2023, at a World Economic Forum dialogue in the Swiss Alpine town of Davos that the South China Sea dispute with China “keeps you up at night, keeps you up in the day, and keeps you up most of the time.”The entire blame for the dispute was on China, the efforts of Beijing to extend its hegemony over the South China Sea. “We have no conflicting claims with China. What we have is China making claims on our territory,”President Marcos said.
In any case, the Philippines was not spoiling for a fight with China. “Nobody wants to go to war,”President Marcos said, ruling out the military option. But at the same time he warned Beijing that any major confrontation in Asia would be disastrous for the world; drawing the instance of the war in Ukraine.
The Philippines has filed hundreds of diplomatic protests over the increasingly assertive actions of China in the disputed waters, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety. In 2022, Manila sent nearly 200 protest notes to Beijing over incursions by China in the territorial waters of the Philippines. Of these, 65 were since June 2022 when President Marcos Jr assumed office.
Predictably, there was no resolution of the dispute when President Marcos met President of China Xi Jinping in Beijing earlier in January 2023. Nor did he expect any major resolution of the dispute during his discussions with President Xi, Marcos admitted.
Besides the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei are also locked in disputes with China over the control of the busy waterway of the South China Sea. Tensions have mounted since Beijing had turned seven disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases to ensure their forcible
occupation. This has alarmed the USA and its allies in Asia and West Europe.
Among the most recent incidents of intimidation by China was the one in the early part of January 2023. Filipino fishermen accused the Chinese coast guard of driving them away from the Second Thomas Shoal which had been under the occupation of the Philippines, and shadowing the vessel of the fishermen. The incident, notably, occurred a few days after President Marcos had travelled to Beijing and met President Xi. The Coast Guard of the Philippines was deploying more patrol ships to protect Filipino fishermen after the incident.
In an interview with television networks in the Philippines, President Marcos said on January 23. 2023, that the Philippines and China should hold talks at the level of foreign ministers quickly to resolve disputes in the South China Sea, blaming the aggressive Chinese behaviour for the disagreements. According to reports, there was no immediate response from Beijing to the proposal from Manila.
Chinese muscle-flexing against Taiwan has also alarmed Manila, with the island nation of Taiwan lying across a sea border from the northern Philippines. “We are at the very front line. If something goes wrong here, we are going to suffer,”President Marcos said at the Davos meeting.
The assurance has come to the countries in the Indian Ocean region, including those in the South China Sea, from the United States – led Quadrilateral Alliance that the challenge of the growing military muscle- flexing of China in the strategically vital region would be met with and Quad would continue to be a force for the good and benefit of the Indo- Pacific.
“We will collaborate with others in the region and beyond for the benefit of the Indo-Pacific and the world,”the USA and Japan said in a joint statement on January 14, 2023, after a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida in Washington. “Together with Australia and India, we will ensure the Quad continues to be a force for the good, committed to bringing tangible benefits to the region, including by delivering results on global health, cyber security, climate, critical and emerging technologies and maritime domain awareness.”
Thus, while the Chinese approach is to establish its monopoly over the entire international waters of the South China Sea to exploit the maritime resources of the region and control the sea lanes of trade, the Quad wants to bring to the littoral states of the region the benefits of health, climate protection and modern technology.
Roundly criticizing China for trampling the sovereign rights of other countries in the South China Sea, the joint statement by President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida said: “Our cooperation is rooted in our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a peaceful and prosperous world, guided by our shared values including the rule of law. The Indo- Pacific faces growing challenges, from actions inconsistent with the rules- based international order by China.”
Taking note of the threatening military manoeuvres by China near the coasts of Taiwan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on January 1, 2023, cautioned China against changing the status quo on Taiwan. “On Taiwan, I think China made a decision that it was no longer comfortable with the status quo, a status quo that had prevailed for decades, that had actually been successful in terms of the relationship between our countries and managing what is a difficult situation,”Blinken said in conversation with the Institute of Politics of the University of Chicago. “We have seen them over the last few years ratchet up the pressure on Taiwan, military pressure, economic pressure, trying to cut off ties to countries around the world, to international organizations.”
Pointing out that the Chinese actions in Taiwan were against the interest of the international community, Blinken said: “Fifty percent of container ships moving around the world every day go through the Taiwan Strait, 70 percent or more of the computer chips manufactured in the world at the higher ends are manufactured in Taiwan. If this gets disrupted, the entire world economy will suffer. Every country in the world has an interest in making sure that peace and stability remain in the strait and differences are resolved peacefully, not through pressure, coercion or the use of force.”
On January 5, 2023, a destroyer of the U.S. Navy USS Chung-Hoon sailed through the Taiwan Strait; despite protests from China. “The transit of Chung-Hoon through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the commitment of the United States to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States military flies, sails and operates anywhere international law allows,”the Japan-based 7th Fleet of the U.S. Navy said in a statement.
In a move to stall Chinese designs in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. administration in the beginning of January 2023 was nearing deals with two Pacific Island nations to extend ties. In the second week of January, the USA signed memorandums of understanding with the Marshall Islands and Palau that would pave the way for early completion of broader agreements that would grant the USA unique military and other security rights on the islands in return for substantial aid. The U.S. administration believed that the “Compacts of Free Association” agreements would be the key to retaining American power and blunting Chinese assertiveness throughout the Indo-Pacific. Negotiations were in progress for a similar memorandum of understanding with Micronesia.
A report in a Micronesian news outlet says Marshall Islands would receive
$700 million over four years under the memorandum it has signed. Besides, the USA will build a new hospital and a museum in Marshall Islands in memory of their role in the Pacific theatre during World War II. The USA, in lieu, would be given unique military rights and rights based on its national security requirements in an area where China is engaged in muscle-flexing. Incidentally, both Marshall Islands and Palau recognize Taiwan diplomatically. Nationals of Marshall Islands can now live and work in the USA, having moved in thousands to Arkansas, Guam, Hawaii, Oregon and Oklahoma. In yet another initiative that would catch Beijing on the wrong foot, Washington is reported to have finalized plans to reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands with which China has recently signed a security pact. An AP report from Washington on January 4, 2023, said the USA had countered the Chinese move by sending to the Solomon Islands several high-level delegations. American prospects in the Solomon Islands were high as the Islands had been a key battleground in the Pacific theatre during World War II. Pro-American sentiments were high in the Solomon Islands.