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Will the Philippines succeed in its case at International Court of Justice against China for Extended Continental Shelf?

Will the Philippines succeed in its case at International Court of Justice against China for Extended Continental Shelf?

In 2012, the United Nations recognized Benham Rise, located off the east coast of the Philippines, as part of the country’s extended continental shelf. This recognition was uncontested by China. Fast forward to today, the Philippines has submitted a new claim to the United Nations for an extended continental shelf (ECS) in the South China Sea—a region marked by increasingly hostile maritime conflicts with China. Marshall Louis Alferez, the foreign ministry’s assistant secretary for maritime and ocean affairs, emphasized the importance of securing the Philippines’ future by asserting their exclusive right to explore and exploit natural resources within their ECS entitlement. China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea overlap with territories claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Despite a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated China’s claims, Beijing continues to dispute this decision. The recent UN submission by the Philippines aims to delineate the outer limits of its continental shelf, extending up to 350 nautical miles.

Let’s get into the detail of it.

Rising Tensions between China and Philippines in the South China Sea 

Rising maritime tensions between China and the Philippines have highlighted the hazards of armed conflict in the South China Sea. The region is embroiled in complex sovereignty disputes involving multiple countries with competing claims over various features and maritime entitlements. However, recent incidents between Beijing and Manila have raised the most significant concerns. The Philippines maintains nine outposts in the Spratly Islands, a contentious cluster of land and sea features at the heart of the South China Sea. One such outpost, Second Thomas Shoal, has become a perilous flashpoint. Here, Chinese vessels continually attempt to obstruct Manila’s efforts to resupply the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting ship deliberately grounded by a former Philippine government in 1999 to assert sovereignty over the atoll. Although China also claims the shoal, it began interfering with these resupply missions in 2014. Relations have reached unprecedented turbulence over the past several months, with Chinese ships repeatedly assaulting Philippine supply vessels and deploying water cannons, injuring sailors.

The South China Sea has thus become a hotspot for potential conflict, with Washington and Beijing at odds. This tension prompted then-President Benigno Aquino to challenge China’s territorial claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On July 12, 2016, the arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of Manila, invalidating China’s claim to waters within its “nine-dash line,” which roughly encompasses the entire South China Sea. However, Beijing dismissed the ruling and undermined efforts to resolve the dispute legally by constructing and fortifying artificial islands in the Spratlys while the case was pending. This move significantly altered the status quo, enabling Beijing to establish permanent garrisons in the area.

A brief lull in the maritime dispute occurred after Rodrigo Duterte succeeded Aquino in 2016. Duterte adopted a pragmatic approach towards Beijing, downplaying the tribunal’s ruling and seeking economic benefits from China. Despite his efforts, tensions at sea persisted, with regular standoffs between the Philippine coast guard and Chinese vessels. Filipino fishermen struggled to access their traditional fishing grounds, and Manila could not exploit the valuable oil and gas reserves within its exclusive economic zone, as recognized under international law. In March 2021, the situation escalated when Chinese ships amassed on Whitsun Reef, an uninhabited feature in the sea, prompting senior Philippine officials to publicly criticize China’s actions for the first time in years. By the end of Duterte’s presidency, the Philippines had renewed ties with the United States and filed numerous diplomatic protests against China.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who succeeded Duterte in 2022, initially sought to maintain friendly relations with Beijing. However, this relationship soured within months. Despite China being the Philippines’ largest trading partner, Marcos Jr.’s meetings with President Xi Jinping failed to yield significant new investments or curb China’s aggressive “grey zone” tactics in the South China Sea. These setbacks led Marcos Jr. to strengthen ties with Washington, with the Biden administration repeatedly affirming that the Mutual Defense Treaty would be invoked in the event of an armed attack on Philippine warships, aircraft, or government vessels.

West has traditionally advocated for the peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes, emphasizing adherence to international law while avoiding taking sides. However, China’s assertiveness and expanding military capabilities have prompted a shift in European perspectives. The EU and several member states have developed “Indo-Pacific” strategies to enhance cooperation with regional countries. Brussels has also increased diplomatic support for the Philippines, issuing supportive statements following maritime altercations. In 2021, the EU appointed a special envoy for the Indo-Pacific, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Manila in July 2023, the first visit by a Commission President, to express the EU’s readiness to enhance maritime security cooperation.

Background on the ECS Claim

The process of filing a claim before the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) involves several critical steps. Initially, a coastal state conducts comprehensive scientific and technical studies to delineate the outer limits of its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from its baselines. These studies rely on geological, geomorphological, and geophysical data. Upon completion of these studies, the state prepares a detailed submission, which includes charts and coordinates, for review by the CLCS. The commission then examines the data, may request additional information, and, if the submission meets the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requirements, provides recommendations. These recommendations form the basis for the coastal state’s establishment of the outer limits of its continental shelf, which are final and binding.

As the world’s coastal states divide up the ocean floor, the CLCS’s work becomes increasingly vital. The “Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf: Law and Legitimacy” examines the Commission from two perspectives: a legal examination of its decision-making process and a study of its normative legitimacy. The CLCS exists to facilitate the implementation of UNCLOS in establishing the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured. Under UNCLOS, a coastal state must set the outer boundaries of its continental shelf where it exceeds 200 nautical miles, based on the Commission’s advice. The Commission offers recommendations to coastal states on creating such limits. However, its recommendations and actions do not affect the delimitation of boundaries between states with opposite or adjacent coasts.

Territorial and maritime sovereignty

There are two major points of contention: territorial sovereignty and maritime sovereignty. Territorial sovereignty conflicts concern claims of lawful possession of the territory itself, often relying on historical presence to determine rightful control. Maritime boundary conflicts pertain to the territorial delimitations permitted by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

UNCLOS established a 12-nautical-mile territorial sovereignty limit from a country’s coastline and a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that covers seabed resources within that sphere from the shoreline. This is significant because the country with authority over the islands also controls the natural resources in the surrounding area. In the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) territorial disputes, there have been no fundamental resolutions of territorial sovereignty or marine boundary delimitations acceptable to all parties involved. Competing sovereignty claims stem from fundamentally different views on historical ownership rights, making convergence and reconciliation difficult to achieve.

The potentially rich natural resources in the claimed EEZs are central to the territorial disputes. Regarding maritime delimitation, scholars like Mark J. Valencia and Unryu Suganuma have noted that joint resource development can help build cooperative frameworks between the claimants, potentially leading to a more institutionalized method of energy resource distribution in the long run. Advancing resource cooperation in areas where China does not have administrative control over some disputed islands (such as the Spratly Islands and Senkaku Diaoyu Islands) can be a practical way to progress without acknowledging the other party’s sovereignty claims. Deng Xiaoping considered the “shelving” policy of collaboration as realistic for mutual economic gains while not jeopardizing China’s sovereignty claims. In the Senkaku Diaoyu conflict, there has been some progress in bilateral resource development, including a fisheries deal in 1997 and an agreement to develop the Shirakaba Chunxiao oil field in 2008. Long-term cooperative development activities are likely to be the most realistic and beneficial for creating trust and promoting positive-sum gains. Southeast Asian countries will likely choose regional security cooperation from powers like the United States and Japan in the foreseeable future. Establishing trust and providing comfort in bilateral interactions, both verbally and in action, will be critical in breaking the “suspicion begetting suspicion” and “fear begetting fear” cycles. Formalizing collaborative development frameworks will be essential for the SCS and ECS islands due to their geopolitical significance and will be a crucial determinant of future cooperation.

Securing maritime entitlements and resources through this process is highly significant for coastal states. It allows to exercise sovereign rights over the natural resources of the seabed and subsoil, including valuable hydrocarbons, minerals, and biological resources. Establishing clear maritime boundaries also helps prevent conflicts with neighboring states and ensures that the coastal state can manage and exploit its marine resources sustainably. Furthermore, it strengthens the state’s legal and political standing in asserting its maritime claims, contributing to regional stability and fostering economic development.

Article 76 of UNCLOS provides the legal basis for coastal states to establish the outer limits of their continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from their baselines. According to this article, a coastal state can extend its continental shelf if it meets specific geological criteria, including the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin or a distance of up to 350 nautical miles from the baselines or 100 nautical miles from the 2,500 meter isobath, whichever is greater. Coastal states must submit scientific and technical data to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for validation.

The 2016 Arbitral Award, issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration under UNCLOS, affirmed the Philippines’ maritime entitlements in the South China Sea. The tribunal ruled that China’s claims based on the “nine-dash line” had no legal basis under UNCLOS and clarified the entitlements of the Philippines within its EEZ and continental shelf. This award strengthens the Philippines’ legal standing and supports its claims for an extended continental shelf under UNCLOS provisions.

China Rejects Philippines’ Attempt to Extend Continental Shelf in South China Sea

China has rejected the Philippines’ request to seek UN approval for extending its continental shelf in the South China Sea, aiming to secure “exclusive” rights to exploit underwater resources. “The Philippines unilaterally submitted a case regarding the delimitation of the outer continental shelf in the South China Sea, infringing upon China’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian.

Beijing claims a vast ocean territory under its “nine-dash line,” which extends hundreds of miles south and east from Hainan Province. However, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in 2016 that this claim has no legal basis under international law. Despite this ruling, China has rejected the verdict and has been in talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since 2002 to establish a code of conduct in the contested sea.

The Philippines submitted a request to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to determine the extent of its underwater continental shelf in the West Palawan Region facing the South China Sea. “The seabed and subsoil extending from our archipelago up to the maximum extent allowed by UNCLOS hold significant potential resources that will benefit our nation and people for generations to come,” said Philippine Foreign Assistant Secretary Marshall Louis Alferez. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) grants a coastal state exclusive rights to utilize natural resources on the continental shelf. Beijing strongly opposes the Philippines’ move, urging the panel not to investigate Manila’s submission as it covers disputed maritime space.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian stated that the commission should not evaluate or qualify the Philippines’ proposal if it includes the delimitation of disputed waters, following CLCS’s norms of procedure. Lin indicated that Beijing is still gathering information, but views Manila’s “unilateral submission” as a violation of China’s sovereign rights. Maritime affairs experts agree, predicting that Manila’s petition is unlikely to succeed and that Beijing will perceive the move as a legal challenge exacerbating South China Sea tensions. “It seems unlikely that CLCS will be able to validate any such claim. the Commission has, as a rule, avoided making any delimitation decisions when there are outstanding jurisdictional or sovereignty disputes,” said Isaac Kardon, senior fellow for China studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Beijing would see the claim as “another legal and political challenge from Manila,” similar to the 2016 arbitration, and as an attempt to undermine China’s broad claims through a UN institutional approach, he added.

China’s Foreign Ministry said it is still gathering information regarding Manila’s “unilateral submission” of an enlarged continental shelf. Mainland China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, which includes territory claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. While the specifics of Manila’s submission had not yet been made public, its continental shelf claims might overlap with those of other coastal governments in the South China Sea, potentially leading other claimant states to use similar techniques. “The Philippines’ submission could set a precedent for other claimant states, who may file similar ECS (extended continental shelf) submissions to assert their rights,” said Ding Duo, associate research fellow at Hainan’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies. He noted that claimant countries might file their applications alone or together, adding that either scenario would complicate the South China Sea conflicts.

“This will make the dispute even more complex and harder to resolve, and introduces a new point of contention for how Beijing and Manila should properly manage and handle their differences in the South China Sea,” Ding told the press.

Maritime observers believed that Beijing would respond to Manila with harsh operational and diplomatic actions. “China might also increase the intensity of their interdictions at Second Thomas Shoal or escalate elsewhere in the South China Sea against Philippine interests,” Carnegie’s Kardon said, adding that China might choose to publish baselines around the Spratlys to challenge the Philippines’ claims. Baselines are essential in determining marine boundaries and exerting control over resources since they serve as the starting point for measuring a country’s territorial sea, EEZ, and continental shelf.

The Philippines Dilemma: How to manage tensions in the SCS?

The Philippines is a significant actor in the South China Sea territorial disputes, which are intensifying as China asserts itself and claimant governments compete for resources. Rather than using international law to counter China’s claims, President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a pragmatic approach, avoiding confrontation in hopes of reaping economic benefits. However, five years later, it appears this strategy has not fully paid off. The simmering maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing has become more entangled with geopolitical competition between China and the United States and its allies. Given the increased potential for escalating events at sea, Manila should advocate for a substantive and effective Code of Conduct between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to control maritime tensions while maintaining diplomatic channels with Beijing to avoid misunderstandings. Additionally, promoting regional collaboration, such as in fisheries management, would be beneficial.

Duterte, eager to reduce ties with the United States and extend his strategic options, has minimized the question of territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea during his administration, focusing instead on economic gains from China. In line with this strategy, he downplayed Manila’s victory in a 2016 arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which rejected Beijing’s wide claims of sovereignty and “historic rights” over the sea. Since then, Manila has maintained a flexible policy, often viewed as erratic by local and international observers, with the goal of strengthening connections with Beijing to promote economic growth. By advancing cautiously, the Philippines wanted to prevent the maritime issue from jeopardizing its bilateral relationship. However, five years into Duterte’s administration, problems persist.

Chinese ships patrol the Philippine exclusive economic zone without interruption, and Filipino vessels are frequently unable to reach traditional fishing grounds near Scarborough Shoal due to Chinese harassment. Many Filipinos are growing suspicious of rapprochement with China if it means giving up claims to contested sea features. Since late 2019, Manila has shown less willingness to ignore Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea, submitting diplomatic protest notes to China in reaction to purported territorial transgressions.

More importantly, Duterte reversed his abrupt February 2020 revocation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, which permits the US to deploy military personnel in the Philippines and undertake joint exercises with Manila. In June 2020, Duterte suspended the cancellation. The United States then began referring to China’s claims in the South China Sea as “illegal,” reaffirmed its alliance with the Philippines, and stated that the Mutual Defense Treaty covers attacks on Philippine forces or vessels in the Sea. A confrontation in March 2021 over Whitsun Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands, involving hundreds of Chinese ships, further inflamed anti-China sentiment in the Philippines and strained relations. On July 30, 2021, Duterte formally reinstated the Visiting Forces Agreement.

Balancing a treaty relationship with the United States with periodic conflicts with neighbors, including a rising great power like China, is particularly challenging. Manila is allied with Washington through a longstanding relationship, but geographical and economic realities necessitate a compromise with Beijing. Simultaneously, Internal conflicts within the bureaucratic establishment and military, along with the interaction of elite interests and public opinion, often lead to apparent inconsistencies in government policy. To manage tensions and reduce the risk of maritime incidents escalating into conflict, the Philippines should bolster risk management measures and advocate for regional security cooperation.

Conclusion

The South China Sea disputes are complex, involving multiple countries and a range of economic, strategic, and security considerations, with phases of escalation and quiet. Recent tensions are increasingly tied to US-China strategic competition, complicating Manila’s foreign policy. Following Duterte’s 2016 election victory, the Philippines pivoted towards China, but opinions are mixed on whether this approach has served national interests, especially given Duterte’s ad hoc methods. If the next president adopts a less pro-China stance, more incidents at sea are likely post-Duterte. However, as the Whitsun Reef incident showed, Manila can manage Beijing with cooperation and deterrence. Manila’s long-term strength may lie in separating disputes from broader China relations and standing firm when necessary. The key concern is whether the Philippines can navigate between China and the US without choosing sides in a conflict. While Manila is currently hedging effectively, rising regional tensions may make this balance unsustainable. (MEHRAAN BHAI YEH CROP KR DAIN HIGHLIGHTED WALA )The deep waters of the South China Sea are expected to remain contentious, but finalizing a Code of Conduct and enhancing regional collaboration could help prevent future escalations. Success in extending its continental shelf at the International Court of Justice depends on strong scientific data, legal arguments, and cooperative dialogue with neighbouring states, adhering to international standards and fostering a collaborative spirit.

Analysis

Why Marcos South China Sea Policy is better than Duterte?

Why Marcos South China Sea Policy is better than Duterte?

The geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia is characterized by a complex interplay of national interests, historical tensions, and the strategic maneuverings of global powers. In this scenario, the South China Sea stands out as a particularly contentious region, with overlapping territorial claims and significant economic and security implications. As regional dynamics evolve, so too do the foreign policies of the countries involved. In this context, the Philippines has seen a marked shift in its approach from the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte to that of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. While Duterte’s tenure was noted for its conciliatory stance towards China, Marcos Jr. has adopted a more assertive policy, aligning more closely with the United States and emphasizing the defense of Philippine sovereignty. This shift reflects broader strategic calculations in response to China’s growing assertiveness and the need for stronger defense capabilities. The contrast between the two administrations provides a compelling case study in how nations balance between cooperation and confrontation in pursuit of their national interests.

Background: Duterte’s Approach

As the successor to President Aquino III, President Duterte adopted a markedly more cooperative stance toward China, seeking to avoid conflict over maritime sovereignty. Despite the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling largely favoring the Philippines, Duterte refrained from pursuing these convictions aggressively. Instead, he implemented pragmatic strategies rooted in Realpolitik and Rational Choice, shifting Philippine foreign policy from confrontation to a more nuanced approach. He preferred bilateral discussions over multilateral forums and supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative, aligning with his “Back to Domestic; Build, Build, and Build” campaign slogan focused on economic development and infrastructure. Duterte’s inward-looking strategy relied heavily on Chinese economic incentives to enhance the Philippines’ prosperity. This recalibrated foreign policy aimed for mutual benefits: China restrained the Philippines from assertively acting on the PCA ruling, while the Philippines gained economic and political advantages from Chinese infrastructure investments. Duterte’s approach strained the long-standing US-Philippines relationship, reflecting his vision for a multipolar world order and a distinct regional identity. This independent foreign policy garnered global attention and criticism, revealing the complex trade-offs and uncertainties involved. Consequently, the Philippines’ stance on SCS maritime and territorial claims softened under Duterte’s leadership.

Marcos Jr.’ Policy Shift

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has notably shifted Manila closer to the United States, diverging sharply from the path of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos appears to be the first Southeast Asian leader to decisively choose between the United States and China. Given the Philippines’ precarious position in the South China Sea and China’s growing regional dominance, Marcos Jr. may have concluded that maintaining a balance is no longer feasible and that, in the event of conflict, unwavering support from Washington is essential. The rising harassment of Philippine boats and marines stationed on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal by China has severely infuriated Marcos Jr., with incidents increasing recently.

In response to these challenges in the West Philippine Sea, President Marcos Jr. reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to maintaining Philippine sovereignty and defending its territory. At the 21st International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, he declared, “We will never allow anyone to detach it from the totality of the maritime domain that renders our nation whole.” Marcos emphasized that he has vowed to uphold this grave responsibility since his first day in office, stating, “I’m not going to give up. Filipinos are unyielding.” He reiterated that the government would make every effort to safeguard the Philippines’ territorial integrity in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Award. “International law, not our imagination, is the source of the boundaries we draw on our waters,” he asserted.

Marcos highlighted that the Philippines defines its boundaries based on international law, not “baseless claims.” He outlined the country’s intentions to improve its defense capabilities and strengthen its ties with foreign nations during his keynote speech at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. He emphasized that the Philippines would enhance its ability to safeguard its interests in both the global commons and its maritime domain as part of the Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept. “We will strengthen our ability to safeguard our interests in the global commons and in our own maritime domain as we work to preserve the rule of law in international affairs,” Marcos declared.

He stressed that diplomacy would continue to be a key component of building the Philippines’ defense capabilities. President Marcos also reaffirmed that ASEAN Centrality would remain a fundamental component of the country’s foreign policy. He noted that the Philippines would strengthen strategic alliances with Australia, Japan, and Vietnam, in addition to its relationship with the United States. The country would also seek closer ties with partners like the Republic of Korea and India. Marcos pointed out that cooperative efforts involving a small number of governments with common interests could “build into pillars that support the architecture of regional stability.” He mentioned pursuing trilateral cooperation in the Celebes Sea with Indonesia and Malaysia and expanding collaboration in the exclusive economic zone with Australia, Japan, and the United States.

Over the past year, the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone has been repeatedly targeted by China’s coast guard and allied fishing vessels, further straining relations between the two countries. Marcos stated that he has been in communication with “friends in the international community” and has met with his defense and security officers to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. “They have offered to help us with what the Philippines requires to protect and secure our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction,” he said.

The deterioration of ties with China coincides with Marcos’s efforts to strengthen defense ties with the US. Beijing is displeased with his expanded US access to military sites in the Philippines and the inclusion of joint exercises involving air and sea patrols over the South China Sea. The US-Philippines treaty obliges both nations to defend one another in the event of an attack, covering coastguard, civilian, and military vessels in the South China Sea.

Key Actions Under Marcos Jr.

Marcos Jr. emphasized Manila’s right to utilize South China Sea energy resources without first engaging China in a statement released on December 1, 2022. He vowed to “fight” for the rights that belong to his country. Given that the Philippines depend largely on imported fuel, his comments highlighted the urgency of exploring for oil and gas in the strategically significant sea. In the face of a more divided Southeast Asia, Marcos Jr. has resorted to striking a balance between his relations with China and the United States. However, sustaining strategic ambiguity is becoming more and more of a difficult balancing act every day. Beijing is applying more and more pressure. Chinese rocket debris was taken by force from the Philippine Navy in November by the Chinese coast guard.

In order to restart the nation’s slow economic growth, the new president desperately had to acquire investments amidst a severe financial crisis made worse by the pandemic. Beijing might be a trustworthy source, but Chinese investments and the sovereignty risks they pose are touchy political subjects. Protests by the general public against Chinese influence are not unusual in the Philippines, and they may pose a threat to the legitimacy of Marcos Jr.’s administration.

Asia’s strictest foreign investment regulations, found in the Philippines, limit foreign ownership in numerous areas to 40%. This restriction complicates potential agreements on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, even if the Philippines and China were to reach an understanding. Although both nations have shown interest in collaborating with non-governmental organizations for joint exploration, disputed claims have prevented Manila’s PXP Energy Corp, which holds exploration permits in the contested Reed Bank, from finalizing a mutually beneficial deal with China’s National Offshore Oil Corp.

The situation is further complicated by increased U.S. engagement with the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. allowed U.S. forces access to four additional Philippine military facilities, raising the total to nine. Under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), U.S. troops are permitted to rotate indefinitely for joint training, equipment prepositioning, and infrastructure development, including runways, fuel storage, and military housing. This move aligns with the Biden administration’s strategy of strengthening a regional security network to counter China, as well as with Philippines efforts to enhance its external defense, particularly in the South China Sea.

China reacted strongly to this development, particularly since two of the new U.S. locations are near Taiwan and southern China. Beijing accused the Philippines of providing staging areas for U.S. military operations, thereby compromising Chinese security. In response, Marcos stated that his administration has no plans to grant the U.S. access to additional military bases. He emphasized that China’s aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea initially prompted the U.S. military presence in several Philippine camps and locations. At a press conference with foreign correspondents in Manila, Marcos clarified, “The Philippines has no plans to create any more bases or give access to any more bases.”

When questioned about whether the presence of U.S. forces had provoked Chinese actions in the South China Sea, Marcos maintained that American troops were there in response to China’s actions. He cited incidents where Chinese coast guard ships used water cannons and lasers to block Philippine vessels. “These are reactions to what has happened in the South China Sea, to the aggressive actions that we have had to deal with,” he stated. China, on the other hand, blamed the Philippines for instigating conflicts by intruding into its territorial seas and violating an alleged agreement to remove an old Philippine navy vessel stationed at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. Marcos denied knowledge of any such agreement and declared it void if it ever existed.

Marcos emphasized that the Philippines must take more concrete actions beyond lodging protests concerning incidents in the South China Sea. He referred to a recent event where the Chinese coast guard blocked a routine troop supply run to the Second Thomas Shoal, resulting in a serious injury to a Philippine sailor. While Marcos condemned this as an illegal action, he noted that it did not constitute an armed attack. Despite filing numerous protests, he stressed the need for more substantial measures.

End Note

The contrast between the South China Sea policies of Duterte and Marcos Jr. signify the evolving nature of the Philippines’ approach to maritime sovereignty and international diplomacy. Duterte’s strategy prioritized economic gains through cooperation with China, often at the cost of territorial assertiveness and strained traditional alliances. In contrast, Marcos Jr.’s policy shift reflects a robust defense of Philippine sovereignty, reinforced by stronger ties with the United States and other regional allies. This strategic realignment addresses the immediate challenges posed by China’s assertiveness while positioning the Philippines as a proactive player in maintaining regional stability and upholding international law. As the geopolitical landscape continues to shift, the Marcos administration’s balanced yet assertive stance may provide a more sustainable and secure path for the Philippines in the contentious waters of the South China Sea.

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Analysis

Philippines Air Force Joins Multi-Nation War Games in Australia to Counter China

Philippines Air Force Joins Multi-Nation War Games in Australia to Counter China

In an unprecedented move, the Philippines Air Force has embarked on its first overseas deployment in over six decades. This historic event sees the Philippines joining forces with U.S. and Australian fighter jets for combat practice in northern Australia amidst escalating tensions with China in the South China Sea. This strategic maneuver underscores the Philippines’ commitment to enhancing its defense capabilities and strengthening alliances in response to regional security challenges.

The Pitch Black War Games

The Pitch Black war games, a significant international air combat training activity, took place in Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory from July 12 to August 2, 2024. This large-scale exercise included four Philippine FA-50 fighter jets and 162 personnel among approximately 140 aircraft and over 4,000 personnel from 20 nations.

This year’s iteration was the largest in the exercise’s 43-year history, exposing participants to complex scenarios utilizing advanced aircraft and battlespace systems. Aircraft and personnel from the Philippines, Spain, Italy, Papua New Guinea, and embedded personnel from Fiji and Brunei participated for the first time, joining aircraft from countries such as France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and embedded personnel from Canada and New Zealand.

Aircraft operated primarily from RAAF bases in Darwin and Tindal in the Northern Territory, with additional tanker and transport aircraft at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland. Exercise Pitch Black is Australia’s premier activity for international engagement, held every two years to build stronger ties with like-minded nations.

A Historic Milestone

This deployment marks a significant moment in the history of the Philippines Air Force, as the first time since 1963 that it has taken combat aircraft abroad. On July 10, 2024, four FA-50s and 162 personnel from the Philippine Air Force arrived at RAAF Base in Darwin, marking the first-ever deployment of the country’s fighter jets for drills outside the Philippines.

Royal Australian Air Force Air Commodore Pete Robinson expressed his honor at Australia being chosen for this significant deployment, highlighting the historic nature of the event. The decision to deploy four FA-50s instead of the initially planned six was made to retain more aircraft in the Philippines for domestic operational requirements.

The deployment of the FA-50s to the Pitch Black war games demonstrates the Philippines’ commitment to engaging in multinational military cooperation and improving its own defense capabilities. The FA-50s, which are light combat aircraft, are well-suited for training exercises that involve both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat scenarios. By participating in these exercises, the Philippines Air Force can gain valuable experience and insights into modern combat tactics and technologies.

Enhancing Capabilities

The vast airspace of the Northern Territory provides an ideal environment for enhancing a wide range of capabilities, focusing on the tactical execution of large force employment and offensive counter air and land operations in a multinational coalition environment. The war games involve not only dog fighting but also the use of advanced radar and missile systems for long-range engagements.

Philippine fighter jets worked alongside advanced aircraft such as the F-35A Lightning II, EA-18G Growler, and Su-30MKI Flanker, tackling complex problems against simulated adversaries and ground threats. This includes air-to-air refueling, reconnaissance, and airlift operations, enhancing the capabilities of all participating forces to operate together, improve readiness, and strengthen regional partnerships.

The FA-50s’ participation in these exercises allows the Philippine pilots to train in an environment that mimics real combat conditions. This exposure is crucial for building confidence and proficiency in handling advanced aircraft and executing complex missions. The experience gained from these exercises will be invaluable in guiding the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization efforts.

A United Front

The U.S. F-22 stealth fighter and Australia’s F-35A and F-18 are among the combat aircraft taking part in these war games. The U.S. sent F-22 jets from the 15th Wing based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, to train alongside Australia’s F-35A jets, improving interoperability between their armed forces.

Fast-jet pilots from the U.S. Marine Corps conducted training in offensive counter air, defensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defenses, and strike mission sets during the day and night, demonstrating the depth of interoperability between the two nations.

The collaborative efforts in the Pitch Black war games highlight the importance of interoperability and joint operations among allied forces. By training together, these forces can develop a better understanding of each other’s tactics, procedures, and capabilities. This level of cooperation is essential for effective multinational operations, especially in complex and dynamic combat environments.

The participation of the Philippines in this multinational exercise not only enhances its own defense capabilities but also strengthens its ties with key allies. The ability to operate seamlessly with U.S. and Australian forces is a strategic advantage for the Philippines, particularly in the context of regional security challenges.

The South China Sea Dispute

The South China Sea dispute between the Philippines and China has been a source of tension for many years. The crux of the dispute lies in overlapping territorial claims over the South China Sea, a strategic and resource-rich waterway. China’s extensive claims have led to several direct confrontations, including a clash at the Second Thomas Shoal on June 17, 2024, causing injuries to Filipino navy personnel and damage to military boats.

The encounters between the two nations have grown increasingly tense as Beijing continues to assert its claims to shoals in waters that Manila insists are within its exclusive economic zone. Despite these tensions, both sides have affirmed their commitment to deescalate tensions without prejudice to their respective positions. However, the geopolitical landscape in the South China Sea remains complex and fluid, posing significant challenges to regional stability and international law.

China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, such as the construction of artificial islands and the deployment of military assets, have heightened tensions with neighboring countries, including the Philippines. The strategic importance of the South China Sea, which serves as a major shipping route and is believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves, makes it a focal point of regional and global interest.

China’s Reaction

China’s reaction to the Pitch Black war games was significant. Following the announcement of the exercise, China launched drills in the Taiwan Strait in response to what it perceived as “separatist acts.” These drills involved heavily armed warplanes and staged mock attacks, demonstrating China’s ability to control the seas and prevent foreign involvement.

China’s military maneuvers are a clear signal of its willingness to assert its territorial claims and counter any perceived threats to its interests. The timing of these drills, just days after the announcement of the Pitch Black war games, underscores the geopolitical tensions in the region. China’s actions reflect its broader strategy of demonstrating military strength and deterring foreign intervention in what it considers its sphere of influence.

The Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games can be seen as a response to China’s assertiveness. By strengthening its defense capabilities and engaging in multinational exercises, the Philippines is signaling its determination to protect its territorial integrity and uphold international law. This strategic approach aims to deter potential aggression and contribute to regional stability.

The Philippines’ Defense Strategy

Despite having a mutual defense treaty with the United States, the Philippines is increasingly looking to its own air force and navy as the first line of defense. This shift in strategy is in response to the perceived threat from China, with Manila making concerted efforts to bolster its defense capability.

The Philippines’ defense strategy includes preserving holdings in the disputed sea, deterring coercive actions against Philippine vessels and citizens, and compelling Chinese recognition of and compliance with the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration Award. This multifaceted approach involves strengthening the country’s military capabilities, enhancing regional alliances, and leveraging international legal mechanisms to protect its interests.

In addition to strengthening its military capabilities, the Philippines is forging stronger defense ties with other countries. For instance, the Philippines and Japan recently signed a crucial military agreement permitting the deployment of their forces on each other’s soil, bolstering defense ties between Tokyo and Manila. This agreement, known as the Reciprocal Access Agreement, enhances interoperability and facilitates joint training and exercises, contributing to regional security.

The Philippines’ defense strategy also involves increasing investments in military modernization. The ongoing modernization program aims to equip the Armed Forces of the Philippines with advanced hardware and capabilities to address a wide range of security threats. This includes the acquisition of multirole fighter jets, radars, missile systems, frigates, helicopters, and submarines.

Modernization of the Military

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has embarked on a 15-year modernization program that started in 2012 and will continue through 2027. This program, also known as the Revised Armed Forces Modernization Act, aims to strengthen the AFP’s capability to address counterterrorism and internal threats.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently approved a significant military procurement plan, estimated at around $35 billion over the next ten years. This includes acquiring multirole fighter jets, radars, frigates, missile systems, helicopters, and the country’s first submarine fleet.

The modernization program is divided into three phases: Horizon 1 (2013-2017), Horizon 2 (2018-2022), and Horizon 3 (2023-2027). Each phase focuses on different aspects of capability development, with Horizon 3 emphasizing the acquisition of advanced systems and platforms to enhance the country’s defense posture.

Key elements of the modernization program include:

Multirole Fighter Jets: The acquisition of multirole fighter jets, such as the FA-50s, enhances the Philippines’ air defense and strike capabilities.

Frigates and Corvettes: The procurement of additional Jose Rizal-class frigates and missile corvettes improves the country’s naval capabilities, enabling it to protect its maritime interests and conduct various naval operations.

Missile Systems: The acquisition of missile systems, including

surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, enhances the country’s deterrence and defensive capabilities.

Submarine Fleet: The development of a submarine fleet provides the Philippines with a strategic asset for underwater defense and deterrence.

Regional Defense Relationships

The Philippines is actively seeking to establish more regional defense relationships. Recent defense agreements with Australia and Japan indicate a commitment to enhancing interoperability and strengthening defense ties. These agreements contribute to the Philippines’ defense strategy by enhancing its ability to respond to various security threats.

The agreement with Australia, known as the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), facilitates the rotation of Australian forces in the Philippines and vice versa. This agreement enhances joint training, interoperability, and capacity-building initiatives, strengthening the defense ties between the two countries.

Similarly, the Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan allows for closer defense cooperation, joint exercises, and logistical support. This agreement reflects the growing strategic partnership between Japan and the Philippines, driven by shared concerns over regional security and the need to uphold international norms.

The Philippines is also engaging in defense cooperation with other countries in the region, such as South Korea, India, and Vietnam. These partnerships involve joint training exercises, defense dialogues, and capacity-building initiatives, contributing to the overall security architecture of the region.

Implications and Future Developments

The Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games is a significant development in its defense strategy, signaling its commitment to enhancing operational readiness and capabilities. This move also underscores the Philippines’ willingness to collaborate with other nations in maintaining regional security.

By participating in these war games, the Philippines is sending a strong message to other countries in the region, including China. This could potentially deter aggressive actions in the South China Sea and contribute to regional peace and stability. However, it could also escalate tensions, highlighting the need for careful management to prevent conflict.

The experience gained from these exercises will be invaluable in guiding the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization efforts. As tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea, the country is demonstrating its commitment to enhancing its defense capabilities and ensuring preparedness for any eventualities.

The Philippines’ strategic approach involves strengthening its military capabilities, enhancing regional alliances, and leveraging international legal mechanisms to protect its interests. By doing so, the Philippines aims to deter potential aggression, uphold international law, and contribute to regional stability.

The future of the South China Sea dispute remains uncertain, with ongoing geopolitical tensions and competing territorial claims. However, the Philippines’ proactive stance and commitment to defense modernization signal its determination to navigate these challenges and safeguard its sovereignty.

In essence, the Philippines’ participation in the Pitch Black war games is a historic milestone that reflects its evolving defense strategy and commitment to regional security. By enhancing its capabilities and strengthening its alliances, the Philippines is positioning itself as a key player in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and beyond.

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Analysis

Philippines Accuses Chinese Ships of Blocking Medical Evacuation

Philippines Accuses Chinese Ships of Blocking Medical Evacuation

I. Introduction

The South China Sea has been a hotbed of territorial disputes for years, with several countries including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei claiming overlapping parts of the maritime region. The area is rich in natural resources and is a vital commercial waterway, making it a strategic point of contention. One such disputed area is the Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines and Renai Reef in China. The shoal is within the 200-nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone of the Philippines but is also claimed by China.

II. Details of the Incident

On July 10, 2024, the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of trying to block the evacuation of a sick soldier from an “illegally grounded warship” at Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippine Navy stated that the patient was taken from the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting vessel that was run aground at Second Thomas Shoal 25 years ago, to Camp Ricarte Station Hospital in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. The Philippine coastguard claimed it had “faced numerous obstructing and delaying manoeuvres” by its Chinese counterpart but “remained steadfast”. This incident marked another escalation in the ongoing territorial dispute between the two nations.

III. Philippine Government’s Response

The Philippine government has strongly condemned the alleged actions of the Chinese vessels. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) lodged a diplomatic protest against China, calling the incident a “blatant infringement of Philippine sovereignty”. The incident has also stirred up nationalist sentiments among the Philippine public, putting pressure on the government to take a tougher stance against China.

IV. China’s Reaction

China rebuked the Philippines, accusing it of “deliberately misleading” the international community. In a statement, the China Coast Guard said it had allowed the Philippines to evacuate the ill person under “humanitarian considerations” and had “monitored and verified” their actions in accordance with the law. Chinese coastguard spokesman Gan Yu stated that the “relevant Philippine parties ignored the facts, maliciously hyped up [accusations], and deliberately misled international cognition”. He affirmed that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Nansha Islands, also known as the Spratly Islands, including Renai Reef and its surrounding waters.

V. International Reactions

The escalating tensions between China and the Philippines have drawn international attention and elicited responses from various leaders and experts. Collin Koh, a maritime affairs expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, suggests that a second legal defeat for China in the international court would not reflect well on China’s reputation. He believes that the seven years since the last international ruling is a long time, and a new case building on the previous one would inject renewed vigor into global scrutiny of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

US President Joe Biden has warned China that the US will defend the Philippines in case of any attack in the disputed South China Sea. This reiteration of the US’s “ironclad” defense commitment to the Philippines underscores the geopolitical implications of the dispute.

VI. Historical Context

The South China Sea dispute is not a recent development but has deep historical roots. The region has been a point of contention for centuries, with various Southeast Asian nations asserting their claims over different parts of the sea. The modern dispute, however, can be traced back to the 20th century when several nations began to assert their sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

The Second Thomas Shoal, in particular, has been a flashpoint in the dispute. The Philippines grounded the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting naval vessel, on the shoal in 1999 to reinforce its claim. China, however, views this as an illegal occupation and has maintained a constant maritime presence around the shoal.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a case against China’s claims in the South China Sea. The court declared China’s “nine-dash line” claim, which covers nearly the entire South China Sea, as having no legal basis. However, China rejected the ruling, and the decision did not lead to a significant change in the status quo.

VII. Analysis

The ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea has significant geopolitical implications. For China, asserting its claims in the South China Sea is a matter of national pride and a demonstration of its growing global power. It is also strategically important due to the sea’s rich natural resources and its importance as a commercial waterway.

For the Philippines, the dispute is about protecting its territorial integrity and its rights to exploit the resources within its exclusive economic zone. The recent incident could further strain Philippines-China relations and push the Philippines to seek stronger security ties with other countries, particularly the United States.

The involvement of international leaders and organizations like the US, ASEAN, and Japan further complicates the issue. The US, in particular, has been vocal in its support for the Philippines and its opposition to China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. This could potentially escalate tensions between the US and China, two of the world’s superpowers.

VIII. Conclusion

The South China Sea dispute continues to be a complex issue involving territorial claims, national pride, and international law. The recent incident involving the Philippines and China is just the latest in a series of escalating tensions in the region.

As tensions escalate, it is crucial for all parties involved to engage in peaceful dialogue and negotiations to prevent further conflicts. The role of international law and multilateral institutions is also critical in resolving these disputes and ensuring the preservation of the region’s rich biodiversity.

However, the resolution of the South China Sea dispute is not just about resolving territorial claims. It is also about managing the rise of China as a global power, maintaining regional stability, and upholding the rules-based international order. The way this dispute is handled could set a precedent for other territorial disputes around the world and shape the future of international relations in the Indo-Pacific region.

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