In a demonstration of the Philippines’ growing importance as a strategic front line for major powers, the embassies of Japan and China in Manila engaged in a perhaps unprecedented verbal tussle over the latest developments in the South China Sea.
Over the weekend, Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Koshikawa Kazuhiko sounded alarm bells over reports alleging widespread environmental damage wrought by Chinese forces across disputed waters.
According to Philippine authorities, dozens of Chinese militia vessels inflicted extensive and severe damage on coral reefs and marine environment in the seabed of Rozul and Escoda shoals in the Spratly group of islands.
The accusations came just days after the Philippines also accused China of dangerous maneuvers against its resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal, which hosts a Filipino marine detachment atop a grounded ship, the Sierra Madre.
Very alarming news. Our oceans are the lifeblood of our planet, [and] coral reefs are its colorful heartbeats. Let’s preserve [and] protect these vital ecosystems for generations to come.
It didn’t take long before the Chinese Embassy responded, accusing Tokyo of engaging in disinformation while zeroing in on the latter’s recent release of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean.
Beyond word wars with Beijing, however, Manila and its allies are exploring more radical measures in the South China Sea.
On the one hand, the Philippines is considering filing legal cases against China at relevant international bodies, building on its earlier arbitration victory against the Asian powerhouse.
Meanwhile, some American experts are pushing for even more extreme options, including the deployment of US troops to the Philippine-occupied Thitu Island as well as the establishment of combined Philippine-US forward operating bases over contested features such as the Second Thomas Shoal.
Since Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s state visit to Beijing in January, maritime tensions in the South China Sea have only worsened, with both sides taking an increasingly uncompromising stance.
While Beijing has tightened the noose around Philippine vessels and Philippine-held land features in the disputed areas, most recently releasing a new 10-dash-line map, Manila has aggressively doubled down on its defense cooperation with Western allies.
Crucially, Manila also adopted an aggressive public diplomacy approach by, among other things, proactively exposing alleged harassment and violations of international law by Chinese forces across Philippine waters.
In a major move, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) and the Department of Justice seriously discussed the prospects of international arbitration against China.
In 2016, the Philippines scored a major legal victory against China when an arbitrary tribunal at The Hague, formed under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ruled against Beijing’s expansive nine-dash-line claims in adjacent waters and even censured the Asian power’s environmentally damaging reclamation activities across the South China Sea.
Three years later, two former top officials, former Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) secretary Albert del Rosario and former ombudsman and Supreme Court justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, filed a communication before the International Criminal Court (ICC), where they accused top Chinese leaders of systematic violation of the basic rights and livelihoods of Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea.
In their 17-page communication, the two former officials outlined the crimes against humanity China purportedly committed against the Philippine people through in environmentally destructive and illegal reclamation’s and artificial island building activities.
Although the ICC demurred from the case, and is currently at loggerheads with the Marcos administration over drug-related extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, authorities in Manila are once again contemplating new legal measures to condemn China’s actions.
Meanwhile, a number of American observers have pushed for more radical measures under the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty.
This year, Ray Powell, who heads a newly formed maritime transparency imitative at Stanford University, proposed joint Philippine-US operations, ostensibly civic actions, in disputed land features in order to deter further Chinese assertiveness.
For his part, Blake Herzinger, another American defense analyst, went a step further by arguing that the Philippines should establish a new permanent structure over the disputed Second Thomas Shoal and, crucially, have it manned by combined rotational forces from both the Philippines and the US Marine Corps under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Washington and Manila should be deep in talks to develop their own strategy to lift or circumvent China’s blockade before the clock on the Sierra Madre ticks down to zero, he added, referring to the ongoing deterioration of the grounded ship.
So far, Philippine authorities seemingly remain lukewarm to such proposals. On one hand, there is the risk of unwanted escalation, giving China further pretext for adopting more aggressive tactics with untold unintended consequences.
Others, however, are wary of proposals that may smack of savior complex and strategic paternalism. We should respect the Philippines’ strategic agency too, Greg Poling, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2023.