Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines filed diplomatic protests on April 22, 2020 against China for including parts of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the South China Sea (SCS) as one of the districts of Sansha City of Hainan Province and for the incident on mid-February 2020 where a Chinese navy ship pointed its fire control radar at a Philippine navy ship conducting routine patrol at the Commodore Reef.
These protests were additions to a statement released by the Philippine government expressing deep security and political concerns over a maritime incident at the Paracel Islands on April 2, 2020 involving a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel and a Vietnamese fishing boat carrying eight fishermen.
These Philippine protests against China have created an impression that conflicts between these two countries have escalated in the SCS. But the two countries are, in fact, seriously involved in a series of peaceful dialogues and consultations to actively promote functional cooperation and decisively avoid military conflicts in the South China Sea through the Philippines-China Bilateral Consultative Mechanism in the SCS (BCM). Confidence built at the BCM greatly facilitated the continuing Philippines-China cooperation during the pandemic.
Both countries established the BCM after the visit to China of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. The BCM aims “to increase mutual trust and confidence and to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the SCS that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
The Philippines and China held their First BCM in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, China on May 19, 2017. It was during this period when security experts, particularly from Vietnam, raised serious concerns on China’s “expansive” construction activities on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands and on North, Tree, and Triton Islands in the Paracel Islands. But the BCM, as a pioneering bilateral mechanism, contributed enormously to the warming of friendly relations between the Philippines and China, which in turn helped in calming the overall security situation in the SCS under the first year of Duterte presidency. The first BCM was milestone in Philippines-China relations as it opened practical channels of communication between the two countries to deal with sensitive issues in the SCS.
On February 13, 2018, both countries held the Second BCM in Manila amidst international criticism of China’s increased “militarization” in the SCS. But during the meeting, the Philippines and China leveled up the nature of their agenda by discussing “ways to manage and prevent incidents at sea， promote dialogue and cooperation on maritime issues, and enhance mutual trust and confidence.” They also discussed “ways to strengthen cooperation in areas such as marine environmental protection, fisheries, marine scientific research, and oil and gas, without prejudice to their respective positions on sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction”.
On October 18, 2018, the Philippines and China held the Third BCM in Beijing despite reports of China’s “continuing militarization” in the SCS such as landing of China military transport planes on Mischief Reef, deployment of advanced jamming equipment in Fiery Cross Reef, and installation of surface air missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles in Spratlys.
During this meeting, the Philippines and China reiterated the need to promote “cooperation on joint exploration and development of maritime oil and gas” in the SCS. Both countries also “reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of freedom of navigation in and over flight above the SCS, freedom of international commerce and other peaceful uses of the sea, addressing territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or directly concerned and the exercise of self-restraint, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.
Results of the Second and Third BCMs provided meaningful inputs to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in Oil and Gas Development in the SCS signed by the two countries during the state visit to Manila of President Xi in November 2018. The MOU was a breakthrough in their bilateral ties as it demonstrated two countries’ serious efforts to promote practical cooperation in functional areas through joint development, which has been viewed as the way ahead in the SCS. Though opposition groups in the Philippines criticized the MOU, both parties assured their public that the signing of the MOU is “without prejudice to the respective legal positions of both governments.
On April 2-3, 2019, the two countries held the Fourth BCM in Manila amidst controversies pertaining to the alleged strong presence of Chinese maritime militias near Pag-Asa Island. During the meeting, the Philippines and China “reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate and to continue to find ways forward to strengthen mutual trust and confidence”.
Both parties reiterated, “that the relevant differences between China and the Philippines in the SCS is only part of the bilateral ties and should not affect the mutually beneficial cooperation in other fields.” They also reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining and promoting regional peace and stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the SCS.” More importantly, both parties reaffirmed “their commitment to address their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to or threatening with force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”
To sustain the achievements of the BCM, the Philippines and China held the Fifth BCM on October 28, 2019 in Beijing. They held the BCM while China and Vietnam were having a standoff in the Paracels over the issue of oilrigs in the area. During the 5th BCM, both parties reaffirmed “the importance of the BCM as a platform for regular dialogue that can play a significant role in the enhanced and stable development of bilateral relations and peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
An important outcome of the 5th BCM was the creation of the Working Group on Political Security, Fisheries Cooperation, and the Working Group on Marine Scientific Research and Marine Environmental Protection. These two working groups are deemed important for the strict implementation of the DOC and the immediate conclusion of COC.
Through the BCM, the Philippine government was able to directly deal with China on the SCS. The BCM allowed both countries to discuss with each other their existing differences as well as their common interests on the SCS. The BCM provides greater clarity and transparency on some details of their respective national positions, now made known candidly to each other, unlike before where details of their national positions are deliberately kept secret away from each other.
Current achievements of China and the Philippines on the BCM can provide useful lessons for other claimants in the promotion of peace, cooperation and friendship in the SCS. Though the current pandemic has delayed the process of the BCM at the moment, the Philippines and China still use existing channels of communications created by the BCM in order to sustain the momentum of bilateral cooperation in the SCS.
Through the network of bilateral friendships established by the BCM, the Philippines and China are, in fact, able to cooperate further in other fields like dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
[The author is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and a member of the Management Board of the World Association for Chinese Studies (WACS). He is also a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies at Miriam College (the Philippines), Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), and a member of the board of the China-Southeast Asian Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC).]