Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: A Waiting Game in the South China Sea

Chris Mirasola
Friday, October 14, 2016, 11:54 AM

Duterte (perhaps) makes good on (some) threats to US relationship

President Duterte and Defense Secretary Lorenzana oversee military exercise (Photo: AFP)

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Duterte (perhaps) makes good on (some) threats to US relationship

President Duterte and Defense Secretary Lorenzana oversee military exercise (Photo: AFP)

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana put plans for joint patrols and naval exercises with the United States on hold, per President Duterte’s instructions. He also announced that the Philippines would ask 107 American troops in the southern Philippines to leave in the near future. Though this is a stark change of tune for Secretary Lorenzana, who just last week reaffirmed the benefits of a military alliance with the United States, it is less surprising in light of President Duterte’s recent rhetoric. Over the past month he has repeatedly threatened to distance the Philippines from Washington.

As has become something of a pattern, subsequent statements made it difficult to discern what the Secretary’s announcement might portend. Armed Forces Spokesman Restituto Padilla clarified the next day that this hold on joint patrols was temporary so as to allow “a review and assessment in order to find out the benefits that are derived to the Philippines.” At the same time, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay asserted that, “We will also not hesitate to terminate our international agreements, when the national interest will no longer be served,” casting doubt on the future of the Philippines’ 65 year alliance with Washington. President Duterte sought to contextualize such statements, saying that, “I do not mean to cancel or abrogate the military alliances,” “But let me ask you . . . do you really think we need it?”

United States officials have sought to downplay the importance of these statements. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said that “We’re prepared, as we always have been, to honor our commitments and the obligations that we have to the Philippines and we expect the same in return.” He also argued that there has been no “material change” in the US relationship with Manila, though there is “a lot of noise, a lot of stray voltage.” State Department Spokesperson John Kirby expressed a similar sentiment, saying that “we’re mindful of the rhetoric, but we believe that it is at odds with the kind of cooperation that we have right now.” Interestingly, Philippine Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella made a similar comment, advising reporters to “use creative imagination” when analyzing Duterte’s statements.

It is unclear how President Duterte’s rhetoric is playing to domestic constituents. Former President Ramos, a mentor and special representative to Beijing for Duterte, said that the current administration has been a “huge disappointment and letdown.” Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio was also critical, arguing that “we have to send patrols to our EEZ” and “there is only one power on earth that can stop the Chinese from poaching in our EEZ. That is the US.” Notwithstanding these statements, a recent poll found that 75% of Filipinos support Duterte’s policies. Prashanth Parameswaran at The Diplomat, however, warns that we should not read too much into this level of support, as it is not much higher than what his predecessors enjoyed at this point in their administration.

In other news...


Two Chinese fishing vessels, thought to be 100-plus ton steel ships, fishing without authorization in South Korean (ROK) waters crashed into and sank a ROK Coast Guard vessel on Friday. The fishing vessels were being boarded just before the collision and subsequently left the area. No one was killed in the incident. The ROK Foreign Ministry announced that it would increase “diplomatic efforts to root out illegal fishing activities by Chinese fishing boats.” Lee Joo-seong, head of the ROK Coast Guard’s central region, called the incident “attempted murder” and Lee Choon-jae, Coast Guard deputy chief, vowed to “take extreme measures, including the use of arms” in future. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang sharply refuted these statements, arguing that South Korea could not “justify law enforcement activities” in the region. He also condemned Lee Choon-jae’s statement, saying that South Korea should “discipline its law enforcement staff.” Similarly violent confrontations between Chinese fishing vessels and the ROK Coast Guard occurred in 2011 and 2014.

Relations were no less testy at the Xiangshan Forum, China’s premier regional security meetup. New Zealand Defense Minister Gerry Brownlee affirmed that Wellington “support[s] the arbitral process and believe[s] that countries have the right to seek that international resolution.” Fu Ying, Chairperson of China’s Foreign Affairs Committee, responded that countries “not involved” should not interfere, as it would only complicate differences and add to regional tension.

A hodgepodge of other events also cropped up this week. Researchers at the Chinese Institute of Nuclear Energy Safety Technology are developing the world’s smallest nuclear plant, capable of fitting inside a shipping container. They aim to have it installed on an island in the South China Sea within five years. It is designed to power approximately 50,000 households. President Xi Jinping, during his trip to Phnom Penh, announced that China has cancelled $90 million in Cambodian debt and provided an additional $15 million to the country’s defense ministry. Similar bonhomie could be found in Malaysia, where a Chinese naval fleet embarked on a four-day visit “aimed at strengthening military ties between the two countries.” And finally, for our Chinese-reading audience, a recent summary of China’s maritime strategy and an expose of China’s maritime militia (for more on the maritime militia, see Andrew Erickson and Conor Kennedy’s analysis).

The Philippines

Officials spent much of the week expounding on the contours of Duterte’s upcoming visit to Beijing, his first as President. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang confirmed that the visit would take place October 18-21. Leaders will discuss “bilateral relations, cooperation across the board, as well as international and regional issues of common interest.” For his part, President Duterte suspects that China “really want[s] to help us.” Though Duterte pledged to “ask them to allow our fishermen to return to their traditional fishing ground at Scarborough Shoal,” he will not “touch the Scarborough issue because we cannot win that.” President of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies Wu Shicun, who has been involved in semi-official dialogue with the Philippines, projected that both sides “may reach some consensus . . . on cooperation, a crisis management mechanism and fisheries.” He also said that the Philippines, in return, would likely receive infrastructure investment funding from China. This is in keeping with statements from Philippine Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, who told reporters that “we would like to direct [China] towards the infrastructure program that we are embarking upon.”


Singapore and Canberra agreed to more than double the number of Singaporean troops stationed in Australia from 6,000 to 14,000. Australian Prime Minister Turnbull said that the deal “reflects our commitment to do more as partners” as “we seek a future for our region governed by shared norms of behavior and respect for international law, and one marked by stable relations among the major powers.” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong affirmed that, “we both see the United States as a benign force playing a major role in fostering peace and stability in Asia.”

Prime Minister Loong’s statement reflects a recent pattern of increased tension with China over the past month that continued this week. Today reports that Chinese counterparts are questioning Singaporean businesses on their position regarding the South China Sea. Notwithstanding these disagreements, Prime Minister Loong urged Beijing to engage “constructively” with regional players, including the United States, to lower tensions. To that end, Senior Minister of State for Defense Ong Ye Kung said that Singapore would facilitate China’s proposal for an ASEAN-China maritime exercise.


President Tsai Ing-wen told reporters that Taipei would begin talks on maritime cooperation, including fisheries and search and rescue, with Tokyo in the near future. She also asserted that Japanese Prime Minister Abe “has goodwill towards Taiwan” and “is someone we are quite familiar with over a long period of time.”


Tokyo’s relationship with mainland China appears less genial. The Chinese Defense Ministry warned that Japan is “playing with fire” in its plans to increase military cooperation with the United States. In particular, Japanese Defense Minister Inada is lobbying for a bill that would allow Tokyo to provide ammunition and military refueling for US forces around the world. Japanese Ambassador to ASEAN Kazuo Sunaga expressed a similar perspective, arguing that, “if China continues to grow larger militarily or economically, then US engagement is all the more important.”

Tensions with Beijing also flared up after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga accused China of “carrying on unilateral development [of oil resources] in an area where no maritime border has been set” in the East China Sea. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang retorted that all oil and gas exploration “fall completely within China’s rights and jurisdiction.”

In related news, Tokyo plans to implement stricter measures against Chinese fishing vessels entering territorial waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, deploy nine additional patrol vessels, and quadruple existing personnel and monitoring equipment. New patrol vessels have been built to withstand impact from collisions with Chinese fishing vessels, which may be important since Asahi Shimbun found that 35% of all Coast Guard patrol craft are already past their intended operational lifespan.


Labor Party Shadow Defense spokesperson Richard Marles said that Canberra’s navy and air force should be “fully authorized” to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. More specifically, he called for FONOPs within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands and warned that China must not be allowed to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea. Prime Minister Turnbull strongly denounced the Labor Party’s platform, arguing that it shows the Party’s “immaturity and unreadiness” to be responsible for national security. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop argued that FONOPs within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands would “escalate tensions” and represent a sharp change of policy for Canberra.

Chinese officials also reacted negatively to Labor’s proposal. Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission Fan Changlong told Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin that Australia should “speak and act cautiously” on the South China Sea issue, ensuring “that its words and deeds match.”

United States

An Expeditionary Strike Group (consisting of amphibious ships) and two guided missile destroyers held interoperability drills on October 3-4 in the South China Sea. The drill focused on anti-submarine warfare and air defense scenarios. Captain Charles Johnson said that the exercise “demonstrates the flexibility of our Navy to operate forward.”

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

East Asia Forum released a series of impressive pieces on the South China Sea this week. Huiyun Fung analyzes the potential implications of last month’s Russia-China joint military exercise. Hugh White explores the complex choice confronting countries looking to navigate a relationship between the United States and China. Richard Heydarian presents the contradictions of Duterte’s first 100 days in office and Michael Roskin warns that Duterte may prove fatal to the US pivot to Asia.

AMTI also provides valuable food for thought. Greg Poling and Colm Quinn discuss Duterte’s impact on relations in the region and Nicholas Khoo argues that a divided ASEAN has largely rendered the arbitral tribunal’s ruling a “pyrrhic victory.”

And to round out the week, four other noteworthy pieces on less-discussed topics. First, Mike Ives at Environment 360 provides a succinct overview of environmental concerns stemming from Chinese island building. Evan Laksmana at The Jakarta Post critiques Indonesia’s policy in the South China Sea and proposes structural reforms to centralize Jakarta’s foreign policy establishment. Jeffrey Bader at Brookings presents a similarly high-level analysis of US policy towards China. Finally, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull in the Financial Review explains why Canberra and Singapore are natural partners in confronting myriad regional security concerns.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please email Chris Mirasola with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections.

Chris Mirasola is a Climenko Fellow and lecturer on law at Harvard Law School. Previously, he was an attorney-advisor at the Department of Defense Office of General Counsel.

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