Sino-Philippine tensions and overlapping territorial claims

In the past four decades, Sino-Philippine relations have been shaped by fundamental and alternating changes. Prior to 1975, when diplomatic relations were normalised under president Marcos (r. 1965 – 1986), the government in Manila recognised the Guomindang (GMD) government in Taiwan as a close ally, while simultaneously identifying the PRC as a security threat for the regional order in Southeast Asia. In 1994, the PRC occupied Mischief Reef (in Chinese: Meiji jiao, 美济礁) in the Spratly Islands (the official Chinese name is Nansha Islands; in Chinese: Nansha qundao, 南沙群岛) and conducted construction work there from 1995 to 1998, including a 300 meter-long pier, barracks and probably a command centre for communications and control. The Philippines reacted thereupon by taking coercive measures against Chinese fishermen at Scarborough Reef [1], a heavily disputed atoll located 200km west of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. As a consequence, bilateral relations were further being impaired under president Fidel Ramos (r. 1992 – 1998).

Following the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) between the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the PRC in 2002 that advocated cooperative activities, Sino-Philippines relations began to improve again. A clear manifestation in this regard was the Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in Certain Areas in the South China Sea signed in the same year between the Philippine National Oil Corporation (PNOC) and the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC).[2] Yet, as this agreement was extended to a tripartite agreement with Viet Nam in 2005 and Sino-Philippines negotiations over joint development were undertaken in 2007, the period of relative amity ended shortly nevertheless. The Philippines for their part not only did not renew the tripartite agreement on its expiry date in July 2008 but also took legislative measures in passing the Philippine Archipelagic Baseline Law in March 2009 which claimed sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Reef. These steps stirred up outrage in the PRC that shortly after summoned the ambassador of the Philippines to China and “lodged stern representation” on the passing of the baseline bill. China’s then-president Hu Jintao further emphasised that “the claim to territorial sovereignty over Huangyan Island and Nansha Islands by any other country is illegal and invalid” .

In recent years, despite boosting bilateral trade[3], Sino-Philippine relations began to deteriorate again over the South China Sea issue. Following the inauguration of president Benigno Aquino III in June 2010 and his government’s stronger stance in defending its territorial claims afterwards, tensions have steadily heightened, leading to an increased Chinese presence in disputed areas. This development led to several incidents in 2011, in which Chinese and Philippine vessels were both involved and which further entailed an intensive exchange of diplomatic notes between the two countries.

One year later, bilateral relations plummeted to such a degree that a military conflict had come into the realm of possibility. On 10th April 2012, the Philippine navy dispatched its largest naval vessel BRP Gregorio del Pilar, purchased from the US in December 2011, to Scarborough Reef, where Chinese fishing boats were reported to take shelter. As a direct response, the PRC deployed Marine Surveillance ships in order to avert detention of the Chinese fishermen. Whereas mutual tensions lingered on, both countries sought to dissolve the crisis by conducting diplomatic negotiations. On 7th May 2012, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying met with the Philippines’ Chargé d’affaires Alex Chua to discuss the issue. At this occasion, Fu Ying urged the Philippines to “refrain from taking actions which would escalate or complicate the situation”. Moreover, by further sending vessels to Scarborough Reef and by official statements that “mislead the public and the international community”, the Philippines “played up the public feelings, thus severely damaging the atmosphere of the bilateral relations between China and the Philippines”.

Yet while both sides argued in favour of a peaceful settlement of the stalemate at Scarborough Reef, this standoff resulted in negative repercussions in other areas of bilateral relations. It hereby not only led to a reduction of revenue in the tourism and fishery industries but also inflamed nationalist sentiments in both countries. Although both China and the Philippines seemed to have withdrawn their ships in June 2012, two Chinese marine surveillance vessels and one Fisheries and Law Enforcement ship were still reported to lay at anchor at Scarborough Reef. This behaviour prompted Philippine president Aquino to consider the possibility of redeploying vessels if China would not recall its ships. Due to the fact that both countries could not yet solve their sovereignty disputes over Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands, incidents such as the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef in the 1990s or the standoff in 2012 cannot be ruled out in the future. Furthermore, amid official statements arguing for settling the territorial conflicts in a peaceful manner, both sides have continuously undertaken provocative actions and rhetoric to underline their respective positions.

Hence, recent activities instead indicate that a peaceful solution has become more difficult to achieve. In January 2013, the Philippines surprised the Southeast Asian as well as the international community by initialising an international arbitration process before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague. The PRC not only protested against this step by arguing it would be a violation of the principles set out in the DOC and therefore refused to participate in the arbitration process but it also further created a fait accompli by gradually conducting landfill work in the Spratly Islands. Recalling the actions laid out above, it is worth noting in this context that, albeit China as well as the Philippines are publicly favouring bilateral negotiations and peaceful conflict management inter alia proposed by the principles in the DOC to settle their territorial conflicts, both are in fact creating an atmosphere of mutual distrust in the South China Sea by pushing forwards unilaterally – the PRC by submitting their far-reaching claims to the CLCS in 2009 and the Philippines by initialising international arbitration without prior consultation with other ASEAN member states or with China.

Thus, against the background of Sino-Philippine tensions, the author would now like to subject the respective official positions as well as the concrete actions being undertaken in recent years to critical scrutiny. Due to its security and economic implications for the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, an understanding of the Chinese as well as the Philippine approaches is indispensable for answering the question why both countries’ stance towards the issue differs to such a high degree. It further helps, on a broader scale, to lay the foundations for analysing the driving factors of China’s assertive foreign policy in the South China Sea that will be subject of critical analysis in chapter three later on.

[1]           The denotation of this area as Scarborough Reef is not constantly used; it is also known as Scarborough Shoal, Democracy Reef, Bajo de Masinloc, Panatag Shoal (according to Philippine sources) and Huangyan Island (Huangyan dao, 黄岩岛; according to Chinese sources). Against this background, the author adheres to labelling it as Scarborough Reef for reasons of simplicity.

[2]           The agreement hereby stated that both governments “have expressed the commitment to pursue efforts to transform the South China Sea into an area of cooperation” (Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in Certain Areas in the South China Sea, signed on 1st September 2004 in Bejing, China).

[3]           According to Chinese sources, the Sino-Philippine bilateral trade will double until 2016, thereby exceeding its peak of $ 30 billion in 2011 and reaching a total volume of $ 60 billion, see Cheng, Guangjin/Lan, Lan (2011), Sino-Philippine trade to double, China Daily, 1st September 2011, available online at: (last accessed: 14th January 2016); Hoffman, Samantha (2012), Sino-Philippine Tension and Trade Both Rising amid Scarborough Standoff, China Brief, Vol. 12, No. 9, 26th April 2012, Washington D.C.: Jamestown Foundation, available online at:[tt_news]=39306&cHash=12031114d91516eda5f3e718822206a9#.Vc33gXtWHMU (last accessed: 14th January 2016) and Ten, Daniel/Hirschberg, Peter/Batino, Clarissa et al. (2011), Aquino Signs China Trade Deal as Philippines Plays Down Dispute, Bloomberg Business, 31st August 2011, available online at: (last accessed: 14th January 2016).