Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University in Manila, and, most recently, the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The U.S., China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.
In a matter of months, the Philippines’ controversial leader, Rodrigo Duterte, has managed to recalibrate his country’s foreign policy, potentially revive frayed ties with China, and seemingly reduce tensions in the South China Sea, at least for now. Under Duterte, the Philippines and China recently signed a whopping $24 billion in bilateral business deals and officially declared their relations as fully “normalized.”
But Duterte’s greatest challenge vis-à-vis Beijing is the South China Sea dispute over the long run, with China’s occupation of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal the biggest point of contention. Reports suggest that the two sides may have secured a rudimentary, short-term deal for the contested waters.
Since Duterte’s high-profile visit to Beijing, the two neighbors have begun to implement what looks like a provisional joint fisheries arrangement in the South China Sea, specifically in the bitterly-contested Scarborough Shoal. In recent days, Philippine fishermen, for the first time in years, have been able to enter the contested shoal without harassment by Chinese Coast Guard vessels. China seems to have also relaxed its grip on the shoal by decreasing the number of vessels deployed to the area.
To signal its commitment to protect Philippine sovereign rights, as affirmed by a landmark arbitration case earlier this year, the Duterte administration is also deploying Philippine Coast Guard vessels to the area. It is a strange mix of territorial assertiveness and accommodation on the part of the Philippines in the Shoal.
The bigger picture suggests that Manila and Beijing are intent on rebuilding diplomatic ties and moving towards a bilateral economic renaissance after years of mutual acrimony and diplomatic flare-ups. But it is too early to say whether the Philippines has achieved a fair and lasting compromise in the South China Sea, one that will actually benefit Philippine interests over the long term.
So far, there are no indications that the two sides are negotiating even a blueprint of a formal, binding agreement on disputed areas in the South China Sea---a formal deal that would make it harder for China to keep building in the Sea and taking other assertive measures. Absent a formal deal, China can renege on any informal understanding whenever it deems it convenient or justified. Satellite imageries suggest that China has been tightening its grip on the disputed shoal over the past few months, so the letup in recent days could be just a temporary, reversible maneuver to ease bilateral tensions.
Even if the two parties find a mutually-satisfactory deal that is consistent with international law in the Scarborough Shoal, it is still far from certain whether they can ever find a compromise over the bulk of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is claimed by China in contravention of international law. China and the Philippines have no overlapping EEZs, so China has no legal basis to occupy low-tide elevations such as the Mischief Reef or to block the Philippines from developing its resources in the Reed Bank.
Most likely, what we are witnessing now are confidence-building measures that are designed to cement the re-normalization of bilateral ties without necessarily resolving the territorial disputes. Not to mention, this could be part of a broader divide-and-conquer strategy by China, undermining multilateral efforts to rein in Beijing’s maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters.