While a resolution to the South China Sea disputes is unlikely in the near future, improving ties between Beijing and Manila could bode well for maritime peace in the region.
When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited China in October, some worried he was pivoting away from the United States. But Tran Truong Thuy, executive director of the Foundation for East Sea Studies in Hanoi, thinks this is good news for the South China Sea.
At The Economist magazine’s recent Vietnam Summit in Ho Chi Minh City, he said that if China is getting friendlier with the Philippines, then it is unlikely to threaten that progress, for example, by reclaiming islands near the Philippines.
“For China now to conduct reclamation, it would turn back normalization in relations between China and the Philippines,” said Thuy, whose institute takes the Vietnamese name of the South China Sea. “And I think in the near future, in the short, near future, I don’t think China will conduct this kind of activity.”
The rapprochement between Manila and Beijing is all the more unexpected because the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in July that China’s island-building encroaches on Philippine waters. Manila used to be the most vociferous opponent of Chinese territorial claims in the region, but that all changed when a new president took over this summer.
“The Duterte administration has chosen to downplay the ruling. They acknowledge that it exists, but they haven’t pushed it in China,” said Ian Storey, a panelist at the summit and senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
Storey said Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan probably perused the court case, which was filed by the Philippines, in case their South China Sea disagreements ever end in blows. But he saw that as a last resort, as the smaller claimants are unlikely to poke China.
“Because the Philippines has decided not to push it, I don’t think any other Southeast Asian country is going to step in and do that,” Storey said.
For its part China, doesn’t seem to be pushing for conflict lately according to Bill Hayton, author of the book South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. He argued that although Beijing balked at the Hague’s determination, its actions since the summer have been consistent with the ruling.
“It is actually complying. It’s just allowed Vietnamese or, Philippine fishermen to go back to Scarborough Shoal,” he said.
Hayton added that Beijing’s non-aggression is further evidenced by interactions with Hanoi. Armed clashes seemed a possibility two years ago, when China explored for oil in a part of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam.
“Ever since the 2014 oil rig incident, in which it lost so badly — Vietnam played a very good game back in 2014 — China has not drilled for oil in the wrong places,” Hayton said.
There appeared to be a consensus on the panel that overlapping claims to the South China Sea are here to stay, along with what could become a permanent Band-Aid: accepting the status quo to keep the waters calm.