South China Sea: Philippines Running Out of Options

06/05/2015 02:01 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

For decades, China's foreign policy has been shaped and guided by Deng Xiaoping's -- the late Chinese paramount leader, who oversaw the opening up of the country to forces of globalization -- famous dictum: "Hide your strength, bide your time."

Recognizing the imperative of national development, after decades of disastrous policies under the megalomaniac Mao Zedong, Deng aptly saw the necessity for a low-profile, amicable and calculating foreign policy, which provides the conditions for stable and peaceful rise of China. It was precisely this ingeniously pragmatic doctrine, which undergirded China's remarkable economic transformation in the last three decades. Ironically, (nominally) communist China has emerged as history's most successful capitalist story.

In the past decade, as China became "moderately prosperous," it gradually discarded Deng's counsel in favor of a new brand of assertiveness, anchored by growing international economic influence and regional territorial expansionism. China's economic rise has certainly been a positive source of trade and investments for many developing countries around the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America. Its maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters, however, has partially belied China's claim of "peaceful rise" and preference for "win-win relations" with the world. China's rapid ascent has transformed it into both a centripetal force of integration as well as a centrifugal force of fragmentation.

Not only claimant countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, but also non-claimant countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan have been perturbed by China's unbridled gobbling up of contested features in international waters such as the South China Sea. During the just-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned about the "vicious cycle" in the South China Sea and emphasized how the disputes should be urgently "managed and contained."

As China establishes the skeleton of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, it will be in a position to drive out Southeast Asian claimants from other features in the Spratly chain of islands.

Brutal Honesty

Earlier this year, China's feisty Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying boldly declared: "China is entitled to set up ADIZs" in adjacent waters, and a "decision in this regard depends on whether the air safety is threatened and to what extent it is threatened." During the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's biggest security forum, Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), reiterated China's openness to impose an ADIZ in the area if it faced large enough threat. It was a statement that was unsurprisingly provocative, but shockingly honest at the same time.

For long, China has resorted to what I call "strategic ambiguity": That is to say, using rhetorical obfuscation and quasi-legal explanations to cover up for destabilizing actions on the ground. After all, China's actions violate the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC), which discourages any unilateral alteration of the status quo, as well as international law, which bars the permanent and artificial alteration of disputed features.

For instance, China is yet to even identify, among other things, the precise coordinates of its infamous "nine-dashed-line" claims. Nor has it fully clarified the legal validity of its vague notion of "historical rights" in the South China Sea vis-à-vis modern international law. Whenever China was pressured to clarify its activities in adjacent waters, it tried to shut down the discussion by claiming "inherent and indisputable sovereignty" over contested features.

Far from deterring China, the Philippines' decision to bring the maritime disputes to the court seems to have exacerbated the situation. Since 2014, when Manila filed its memorial, China has accelerated its construction activities across a whole host of features in the Spratly chain of islands. It is calibrated move to preempt two major developments in 2016: The expected conclusion of the arbitration procedures at The Hague, and the possibly consequential leadership change in Washington.

China wants to hand down a fait accompli to both the international court and the next American administration by achieving de facto -- if not du jour -- domination over contested features in the South China Sea.

The New Normal

True, China is not the only country that has engaged in construction activities in the South China Sea. But no other claimant country comes even close to the scale, speed, and sophistication of China's geo-engineering overhaul of the Paracel and Spratly chain of islands. In the last 18 months alone, China has reclaimed 2,000 acres (810 hectares) on contested features, artificially transforming them into islands -- a colossal geo-engineering project eclipsing the reclamation activities of all other claimant countries combined.

The Fiery Cross Reef, for instance, has been enlarged by 11 times its original size, now bigger than all naturally-formed islands in the area. It hosts about 200 soldiers, and is soon expected to host a large airstrip and become the command-and-control headquarters of China's activities across the South China Sea. By deploying missile and satellite systems and expanding its air and naval patrols in the area, China could soon create an exclusion zone in the South China Sea and choke off the supply lines of other claimant states, which constantly need to resupply their personnel and refurbish facilities on other features.

No wonder China has become more confident in sketching out its strategic objectives and motivations, because it feels that it may have decisively won the scramble in the adjacent waters. In an uncharacteristically detailed manner, the Chinese Foreign Ministry recently cited numerous objectives of its reclamation activities in the area.

It even tried to put an 'international obligations' spin on its mindboggling construction activities by citing "maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas" as among its objectives in the area. During the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Chinese delegation echoed this PR spin by talking about "international public services" through its reclamation activities. Alarmingly, however, China has also mentioned "necessary military defense requirements" as among the potential purposes of its growing presence in the South China Sea.

China's relentless push for dominating adjacent waters has been facilitated by the lack of unity among its neighbors, particularly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is deeply divided on how to approach the South China Sea disputes; the longstanding unwillingness of major powers to risk confrontation with Beijing, although Washington has gradually begun to challenge China's construction activities by deploying warships and surveillance aircraft close to contested features, the vagaries of international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), vis-à-vis disputed territories in international waters, and the Philippines' inability to develop even a minimum deterrence capability.

The Philippines can no longer afford any form of strategic complacency. There is a growing feeling of desperation and the urgency for bold and more decisive responses to Chinese creation of facts on the waters. As one Japanese official recently put it, "We have to show China that it doesn't own the [South China] sea."

An original version of this piece was published on Rappler.