Clockwise from top left: Zhou Bo, Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy, Li Aixin, and John Pang, discuss the South China Sea issue during Global Minds Roundtable on January 10, 2024. Photo: screenshot
Tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea have been bubbling up for some time. Where is the situation headed in 2024? Could a conflict be sparked accidentally? In the latest episode of Global Times' Global Minds Roundtable (GT), Zhou Bo (Zhou), senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy (Malindog-Uy), director and vice president for external affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute, and John Pang (Pang), a former Malaysian government official and a senior research fellow at Perak Academy, Malaysia, shared their views on these issues.
GT: How do you see the South China Sea situation developing in 2024?
Pang: It is actually driven by the US.
However, the US was already defeated by the Taliban in Afghanistan, by Russia in Ukraine, and by the Houthis recently in the Red Sea. It is in absolutely no shape to take on China in the South China Sea. They can't afford something blowing up in an election year.
I have enough faith in the maturity and the statesmanship of the Chinese government and the capacity of the PLA Navy to limit any particular skirmish. So at this point, it would be extremely foolhardy for the Philippines to be auditioning to be the next proxy to be destroyed.
GT: In 2016, China issued a white paper noting that the Philippines had promised to tow away the vessel on Ren'ai Reef. Yet the Philippines later denied making this promise and refused to acknowledge it due to the lack of a written agreement. What do you think is the reason behind the shift in the Philippines' attitude?
Malindog-Uy: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China is saying that there was a promise. Some non-Chinese sources are also affirming that the promise exists. Gregory Poling, the director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, revealed in his 2022 book that, and I quote, "when the Chinese government demanded that the ship be removed, President Estrada (then Philippine president), feigning ignorance, promised to tow the vessel away as soon as it could be safely floated off the reef."
The current Philippine government has denied making such a promise, and various Philippine government officials, and former presidents, have publicly stated that no such agreement was made. Also, it seems that there is no publicly available evidence of a documented promise by the Philippines to remove the vessel from the shoal. The conflicting claims from both sides make the situation complicated.
At the moment, political establishment in the Philippines are asserting that the vessel is in the shoal as a de facto military outpost of the Philippines and serves as a physical assertion of the Philippines' claim and presence in the area.
Unlike China, there's no consistency in the Philippines, when you talk about foreign policy. Philippine foreign policy varies significantly with changes in government and political leadership.
Zhou: Even Philippine scholars like you (Anna), know what promises your government made in the past on this issue. Otherwise, the Chinese government could not have written these remarks in the white paper.
China has been quite accommodating to all ASEAN claimants. Look at the Taiwan question. We said that we will make utmost efforts to resolve it peacefully. But still, there are three conditions in which we might apply non-peaceful means. But with ASEAN countries, China has never threatened to use force against any claimant. You can tell the difference and how patient we have been. But if the Philippines made a promise, violated the promise, and wants to have a permanent presence on the reef, that goes too far.
We do not want the Philippines to make this kind of installation a permanent military base. So my best answer is to let Mother Nature solve this problem. A ship that is not refurbished will become rustier, and eventually, this problem will be gone. If you put in cement and get it strengthened, this will become a bigger issue.
Pang: Regarding the Philippine actions with the grounded ship, if you ask me how these made-for-media antics make other countries in ASEAN feel, I'd venture to say that makes them uncomfortable. They're not going to reproach the Philippine government in public. The ASEAN way is to raise these matters behind the scenes. Going to the media, playing it up and letting domestic politics run the show, as in the US, would not be the ASEAN way. It also damages a key ASEAN concern: ASEAN centrality.
The Philippines is not the only democracy in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Indonesia are also electoral democracies, and both have maintained a consistent policy toward China over decades. ASEAN does not want to see a member state placing itself in the service of great power politics, and involving the region in exactly the kind of great power conflict that ASEAN was founded to avoid.
GT: Could a conflict be sparked accidentally between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea in 2024?
Malindog-Uy: Hard to predict. The tendency for a conflict or a confrontation, especially a military one, is there. There are skirmishes between our navies.
I don't think the US is prepared to have a head-on military collision with China in the South China Sea, or even in the Taiwan Straits. That's why it uses a proxy, and my country, the Philippines, is being used as a pawn or a proxy. I'm always worried that my country, under the current administration, would be an instrument for a regional conflict that could lead to a global conflict.
I hope this will never happen, in 2024 or the coming years.
Zhou: I think the possibility of a conflict is not zero, but it is highly unlikely. I hope it won't happen at all.