Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: War Games and Summits Try to Maintain Partnerships in South China Sea

Chris Mirasola
Friday, October 7, 2016, 8:16 AM

After weeks of news suggesting a new strategic calculus may be emerging in the South China Sea, a number of joint military exercises reinforced the importance of traditional partnerships. However, another round of striking comments from Philippine President Duterte, and late breaking news that the Philippines has officially suspended joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea, suggests that the region has not reverted to business as usual.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

After weeks of news suggesting a new strategic calculus may be emerging in the South China Sea, a number of joint military exercises reinforced the importance of traditional partnerships. However, another round of striking comments from Philippine President Duterte, and late breaking news that the Philippines has officially suspended joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea, suggests that the region has not reverted to business as usual.

A week of war games

China not a Target at Ongoing War Games in the Disputed South China Sea, Australian Forces Say

Military Exercises (Photo: ChinaTopix via Getty Images)

Eight countries conducted military exercises this week in the South China Sea. The largest, involving members of the Five Power Defense Arrangements (Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the UK), was organized by Singapore and will last three weeks. The Five Powers Defense Arrangements require that members consult each other and take action if there is an attack on Malaysia or Singapore. Royal Australian Air Force Wing Commander Greg Jervis made sure to clarify that the exercise was not designed to respond to Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

Indonesia made a bigger splash this week by conducting the largest military exercise in its history near Natuna Island in the South China Sea. China does not dispute Indonesia’s sovereignty over Natuna Island, though there was an altercation between the two countries in its surrounding waters this past April. The Indonesian Air Force is deploying fighter jets, transport aircraft, utility helicopters, and ground special forces to simulate an air raid and the seizure of a captured runway. Air Force Spokesperson Jemi Trisonjaya said that the exercises are intended “to show our existence in the area. We have a good enough air force to act as a deterrent.” Notwithstanding this desire for deterrence, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi sought to delink the drill from tensions in the South China Sea, saying that the exercises are “not in the South China Sea, but in Natuna.”

Finally, the Philippines and United States also began annual amphibious landing exercises on Tuesday, albeit under the cloud of Philippine President Duterte’s pledge in September to cancel future joint war games. Hopes that this exercise might move relations in a different direction were not to be, however, as President Duterte once again provoked uncertainty about the future of Philippine-US relations.

Duterte threatens to review recent military agreement with U.S.

President Duterte speaking during opening of the Mass Kara festival (Photo: PhilStar via AP)

It has become common practice for President Duterte to question the Philippines’ relationship with the United States (see here, here, here, and here), and this week was no different. It began with US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter saying that he found President Duterte’s comments about killing drug addicts in the Philippines “deeply troubling.” Two days later, President Duterte retorted that “If you are that disrespectful, you disrespect me, I said let’s just part ways.” He then went further, for the first time questioning the legality of an enhanced military agreement (the EDCA) signed under former President Aquino that grants American troops access to Philippine military bases.

President Duterte continued this rhetoric the next day, saying that President Obama could “go to hell” and that the European Union “better choose purgatory, hell is filled up” for criticizing his domestic policies. Foreign Minister Yasay further stirred unease by asserting that “America has failed us” and that the Philippines should end its “subservience to the United States’ interests.” At the same time, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua claimed that, “clouds are fading away” in the Philippine-China relationship and that China is “looking at” enhanced military ties with the Philippines.

US officials have tried to downplay the importance of such remarks. Anonymous US defense officials said that “no one is really losing sleep” over Duterte’s comments. Another reported that the US is trying not to give President Duterte a pretext for further outbursts while simultaneously moving forward with cooperation at lower levels of government. Speaking with a bit more bite, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reminded the Philippines that the EDCA is a “binding” agreement that may only be withdrawn through formal processes. Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana made a similar point, saying that, “[P]resident [Duterte] was misinformed” about the benefits of a military alliance with the US.

In other news...

United States

Secretary Carter gave a speech last Thursday in which he asserted that, “The United States will continue to sharpen our military edge so we remain the most powerful military in the region and the security partner of choice.” He went on to elaborate that the US is entering a third phase of the “rebalance” towards Asia which would “catalyze the Asia-Pacific’s principled and inclusive security network and ensure the Asia-Pacific remains a region where every nation can rise and prosper.”

Secretary Carter then flew to Hawaii and met with ASEAN defense ministers to discuss strategies for defusing incidents in the South China Sea. Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told reports that they also discussed platforms for direct communication and called for a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea that would include coast guard vessels and non-military ships.

Across the Pacific, the destroyer USS John S. McCain and submarine tender USS Frank Cable became the first commissioned Navy ships since the Vietnam War to moor at Cam Ranh Bay, a strategically important South China Sea port. Before arriving at Cam Ranh Bay the ships also called at Da Nang City and Hong Kong, the first such visit since China turned away a US aircraft carrier five months ago.


State media reported that a desalination plant was activated on Woody Island, the largest, best defended, and most strategically important Beijing-controlled feature in the South China Sea. The Diplomat explains that, until now, water had been as scarce as fuel for the 1,400 personnel positioned on Woody Island.

News was more grim further north. Three Chinese fishermen were killed in a fire that broke out on their boat as the South Korean Coast Guard boarded their ship to investigate illegal fishing. The vessel was fishing within South Korea’s Exclusive Economic Zone. South Korean authorities are questioning the surviving crewmembers.

Finally, a Pew Research Center poll found that 45% of Chinese respondents saw US power and influence as a major threat to China. 52% believe that the US is trying to stop China from becoming an equal, though half of respondents still gave the US a favorable rating. 60% of Chinese people polled were concerned that territorial disputes could lead to military conflict.

The Philippines

President Duterte finalized a fast-track code of conduct between Manila and Hanoi during a weekend visit to Vietnam. In an interview conducted during the trip, Foreign Minister Yasay called on ASEAN to “forge much stronger relationships within its members and with its dialogue partners and the international community.” He also argued that, “bilateral engagements with China are necessary because the arbitration tribunal’s decision has no enforcement capability or mechanisms on its own.”

Looking forward, Defense Ministers from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia explored the possibility of joint air patrols. The Philippine Department of National Defense said that this was “primarily driven by the need to address the rising incidents of armed robbery at sea, kidnapping and piracy in the three countries’ areas of common concern.”


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking at the end of a four-day trip to Japan, outlined Singapore’s approach to managing regional tensions. He said that Singapore “must have a stand, our own position” and that, once a position is decided, “we can try our best to preserve our friendship with both sides of the issue.” At the same time, PM Loong asserted that “no single issue defines the whole relationship with another country” and that the South China Sea dispute should not “poison the overall relationship” with China.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

Just shy of three months since the Hague tribunal released its decision on the South China Sea, Julian Ku and Chris Mirasola at Lawfare assess the extent to which China has complied with the ruling. They find that, though China is in clear violation of four rulings and fully compliant with one, much about China’s adherence to the arbitral decision is uncertain. Their analysis will be updated as events in the region develop.

Last week’s spat between the Singaporean Ambassador to China and The Global Times, a state-run newspaper, has caused considerable concern over the status of Singapore-China relations. Liu Zhen at the South China Morning Post concludes that Beijing’s disappointment with Singapore over its handling of the South China Sea lurks beneath the surface of this dispute. Cary Huang makes a similar point, arguing that Beijing is dismayed by Singapore’s efforts to mobilize international support for the arbitral ruling. Elaborating on this theme, the South China Morning Post’s Editorial Board calls on Singapore to employ a more “delicate hand” in addressing Chinese activity in the South China Sea. For a very different take on the issue, see Shashi Jayakumar’s thoughtful analysis from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Unsurprisingly, the flood of pieces assessing Duterte’s impact on regional affairs continues unabated. Manuel Mogato and Benjamin Kang Lim at Reuters summarize the ways in which President Duterte’s visit to China may change the geometry of partnerships in East Asia. Elfrin Cruz at The Philippine Star argues that analysts should be less alarmist and wait to see whether Duterte decides to repeal four seminal treaties and agreements with the US. Ben de Vero reports that Fitch Ratings disagrees with Cruz’s assessment, finding that Duterte’s independent foreign policy could “substantially” undermine US influence in the region. Either way, Federico Pascual Jr., also at The Philippine Star, asserts that President Duterte has destroyed his leverage with the Chinese through a series of obviously anti-American statements.

Duterte’s rhetoric has also increased scrutiny of US strategy. The New Daily reports that retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former head of US Pacific Command, believes that China and the US are locked into opposing positions that make it almost impossible to reach compromise. The Stars and Stripes similarly concludes that the South China Sea has become a clash between US preference for the status quo and Chinese naval ambitions. While reports may agree on the current state of play, they differ widely in their assessment of what the US will, or should, do next. Yann-hui Song argues that the US will adopt a more cooperative strategy as China abides by the arbitral ruling “without actually saying that it will comply.” Dr. KS Nathan, speaking to The Star Online, similarly believes that US strategy towards ASEAN will remain fundamentally unchanged. Mark Valencia, however, finds that the US is loosing momentum by underestimating China’s diplomatic leverage and skill. Taking a longer view, Natalie Sambhi at War on the Rocks contemplates the future of the American pivot with a review of Kurt Campbell’s recently published book, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia.

Not to be left out, scholars also weighed in on how Canberra should handle Chinese action in the region. Nick Derewlany at The Diplomat argues that Australia should act as an intermediary between Beijing and Washington, managing expectations and facilitating discourse. Anthony Bergin takes a very different approach, encouraging environmental groups to shame Beijing for damage caused as a result of island building.

And to round out the week, two pieces on ASEAN. Michael Beckley at Eurasia Review takes a hard line on China, advocating for Southeast Asian nations to contain China through military modernization and investment. The Economic Times takes a less strident, though similar, view, arguing that ASEAN solidarity can challenge China since Beijing “has to live with these countries.”

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.

Subscribe to Lawfare