Days after the Philippines and China signaled a new modus vivendi in the South China Sea, bilateral relations are once again under strain over military posturing in the strategic waterway.

Recent reports suggest China is tightening the noose around the Philippine-claimed and strategically sensitive Thitu Island – which hosts a large Filipino community with its own mayor – by deploying several naval and coast guard ships provocatively close to the feature in the disputed Spratly Islands.

Despite a feel-good Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit held in Manila at which a new negotiation track was opened for a ‘Code of Conduct’ in the maritime area, many in Manila are questioning anew whether President Rodrigo Duterte’s soft-pedaling on the issue is an effective national strategy.

During Asean ministerial meetings held in Manila in early August, the Philippines exercised its prerogative as the regional body’s rotational chairman to shield Beijing against any criticism over its reclamation and militarization activities in the disputed waters.

Contrary to latest satellite imagery, both Chinese and Philippine foreign ministers falsely claimed that China has not engaged in any recent reclamation activities in the Spratly chain of islands, a resource-rich contested area in the South China Sea.

Certain Southeast Asian countries, particularly the Philippines, have hoped to expand economic relations with the Asian powerhouse in exchange for a more conciliatory approach to the sea disputes.

While China agreed to a new negotiation framework at the meeting, critics noted the drawn-out process first started in 2002 in a non-binding ‘Declaration of Conduct’ as allowed China to consolidate its military position in the area. Many doubt China will ever agree to a binding code for an area where it is fast achieving strategic supremacy.

Source: Asia Times

Analysis: The assessment that China, by far the strongest power among Asian nations, will not willingly accede its position of strength is the correct one. There is too much at stake and Beijing knows it: Natural resources and regional dominance. Attempts to placate Beijing, which is the current strategy of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, will never work; only a credible threat of serious push-back, via force if necessary, will thwart Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.  

Alone, Filipinos will never amass that kind of strength. It will take direct U.S. involvement to keep China at bay, and a growing number of political leaders in Manila not only realize that, but they also know without American assistance Filipinos are at risk of watching China subjugate all Filipino economic interests in the region — including waters belonging to the Philippines.