In a landslide victory on May 9, Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte was elected to be the next president of the Philippines. The 71-year-old Duterte – who has been called the “Donald Trump of the Philippines” for his propensity to spark controversy – pledged to reverse the current government’s foreign policy by engaging China in talks to resolve escalating maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Both China and the Philippines claim ownership over parts of the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.
Duterte also promised to ride a jet ski to China-administrated islands and personally stake his country’s claims should negotiations fail to produce a resolution, so the world is closely watching to see how this potential flashpoint develops. In this Policy Alert, which is part of a series under the Sigur Center’s Energy and Maritime Security project, we explore the reactions of China, the Philippines, Japan, India, and Vietnam to Duterte’s electoral victory and its implications for U.S. policy toward Asia.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang hoped the new government would “meet China halfway, taking concrete measures to properly deal with [maritime] disputes so as to put the ties of the two countries back on the track of sound development.” Lu touted a historical friendship between Beijing and Manila that has been “hit by major setbacks in recent years, due to reasons known to all,” an indirect reference to U.S. support for the Philippines challenge to China’s maritime claims.
During the campaign, Duterte advocated multilateral talks with China to settle these claims. Lu said China continued to reject this approach in favor of bilateral negotiations with the relevant parties. Should those multilateral talks fail to produce an outcome within two years, Duterte promised he would consider bilateral talks directly with Beijing. He also signaled he was open to joint oil and gas exploration with China if Beijing agrees to treat the disputed waters as a “mutual corridor.”
Several commentators traced today’s strained relations between the Philippines and China to the U.S. foreign policy and the outgoing administration of President Benigno Aquino III. (more…)Continue Reading →
With South China Sea debates already on the agenda at last week’s U.S.-ASEAN summit, new satellite images showing China deployed missiles to a disputed island tested ASEAN’s ability to manage the maritime domain. A joint statement at the close of the gathering did not mention China by name, but it outlined support for “mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality, and political independence of all nations” as well as for “ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight.” As host for the summit, the role of the United States in these maritime disputes was also center stage with President Barack Obama calling for “tangible steps” from all sides to resolve the region’s evolving maritime disputes “peacefully and through legal means,” including a “halt to further reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas.”
On February 17, Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense broke the news China deployed two batteries of eight advanced surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system in recent weeks. Taiwan provided satellite images showing the HQ-9 missile systems with a range of 125 miles now located on Woody Island – called Yongxingdao by China – in the Paracel Islands chain, which has administrated by Beijing since 1974 but is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The Pentagon confirmed the presence of the missile systems and considered the moves to be “increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive.” Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to have a “very serious conversation” with China about U.S. concerns Beijing is militarizing the South China Sea.
This Policy Alert covers the reactions in China, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam to these developments and is part of our series on Energy and Maritime Security for the Rising Powers Initiative’s project exploring the linkages between energy security debates and maritime strategies in the Indo-Pacific. (more…)Continue Reading →
The summit between Prime Minister Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama last Friday produced mixed results. Both sides reached an agreement on climate change and on cyberattacks, following the recent Chinese attacks against American businesses and government agencies, but made little progress on the maritime security issues in the South China Sea. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from China, Japan, India, and South Korea on Xi’s visit to the U.S.
Chinese officials and media regarded the summit as highly successful, noting that Xi’s visit purportedly assuaged U.S. concerns regarding a rising China. (more…)Continue Reading →
A series of ASEAN meetings including the 22nd ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the 48th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) took place from August 1-6 in Kuala Lumpur. Concerns over territorial disputes in the South China Sea came under the spotlight at these meetings, with ASEAN’s foreign ministers struggling until the eleventh hour to issue a joint statement. In this Policy Alert, we examine reactions from China, Russia, India, Japan, and South Korea to last week’s ASEAN meetings.
Chinese media defended accusations by other nations regarding China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. (more…)Continue Reading →
As the United States and China meet this week for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, territorial disputes in the South China Sea will be near the top of the agenda. This event follows last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore where U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and several other Asian powers expressed strong concerns over China’s now completed island-building reclamation efforts in disputed waters.
This Policy Alert is the first in a series on Energy and Maritime Security for the Rising Powers Initiative’s new project: The Linkages between Energy Security and Maritime Strategies in the Indo-Pacific. The research effort looks at how energy security debates shape and influence maritime strategies and vice-versa in China, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam and the implications of these linkages for U.S. policy toward the region.
Secretary Carter’s address to the Shangri-La Dialogue presented his vision for a “regional architecture” to tackle five major challenges: “long-standing rules and norms, strengthening our institutions, modernizing alliances, enhancing capabilities and improving connectivity.” (more…)Continue Reading →
Tensions in the South China Sea have significantly increased over the last several days, following a standoff between Vietnamese and Chinese coast guards over a Chinese oil rig and the Philippine maritime police’s arrest of Chinese fishermen for alleged poaching in the disputed waters. This has led ASEAN leaders to jointly express “serious concerns” and call for restraint over territorial disputes in the region. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from China, Japan, India, and South Korea on the recent development in the South China Sea.
Chinese newspapers slammed Vietnam and the Philippines for infringing on China’s territorial integrity, while simultaneously criticizing ASEAN for its involvement in the conflict. (more…)Continue Reading →
Ongoing tensions over territorial disputes in Asia were brought to the foreground last week by several events. ASEAN foreign ministers for the first time failed to agree on a final communiqué at their annual meeting, due to divisions amongst members over how to handle disputes in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, tensions between Japan and China flared up over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. On the sidelines of the forum, South Korea, Japan, and the US met to discuss strengthening mechanisms for national security cooperation amidst stalled progress on the Korean peninsula. Our latest post highlights commentary in China, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea on these developments.
Official Chinese rhetoric at the ASEAN meeting expressed support for formulating a Code of Conduct to address disputes in the South China Sea, while commentary in the state and party-owned newspapers were less accommodating, blaming Vietnam, the Philippines, and more broadly the United States, for the region’s tensions:
- “Public opinion in China is already on the brink of boiling over,” said a Global Times editorial. “Further provocation from Vietnam and the Philippines would mean direct confrontation with China’s angry public.”
- The People’s Daily opined that “US interference in Asia-Pacific may be self defeating,” and that enabling Southeast Asian countries to “side with the US against China” will only entangle the US in South China Sea disputes.
On Sino-Japanese relations, the People’s Daily called the Japanese government’s recent proposal to purchase islands a “farce,” saying that “if it develops unchecked, it will surely result in the issue of the Diaoyu Islands spiraling out of control.”
It was widely reported in the Indian press that Vietnam’s decision to extend an oil exploration contract to an Indian company was a sign that Vietnam wants a continued Indian presence in the South China Sea. General commentary on the ASEAN meeting, however, was relatively sparse. (more…)
By Shawn McHale, Associate Professor of History and International Affairs, George Washington University
The South China Sea is one of the great connecting oceans of the world, acting as a major conduit of Asian and global trade. It has also been a worrisome site of conflict. In recent years, disputes over territorial claims have led to armed clashes involving China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It has also led to demonstrations. Arguments have spilled into cyberspace: on YouTube, Google Earth, online newspaper articles, and chat rooms, nationalist tempers have flared over their country’s claims to these tiny islands, atolls, and reefs.
Most of the territorial claims over the South China Sea are surprisingly weak, and none is incontestable. Here we must distinguish between arguments over the Paracels, the far-flung cluster of islands, reefs, and atolls closest to China, and those over the Spratlys, a similarly widely spread set of islands further to the south. Only China and Vietnam contest the Paracels, whereas six countries have claims to the Spratlys. Finally, the contemporary bitter arguments over sovereignty in this area repeatedly invoke historical evidence. It is the latter issue that will be the focus of this Policy Commentary.
Bluntly stated, we cannot impose contemporary notions of sovereignty on historical practices before the twentieth century. Despite much misinformation and inflamed rhetoric to the contrary, historical evidence overwhelmingly supports the view that states did not, traditionally, claim exclusive territorial rights over the vast majority of the South China Sea. To the contrary: the area has historically been an Asian maritime commons. What, then, does the historical evidence suggest? And how has argument over this evidence shaped Asian identity politics today?Continue Reading →