China and the Philippines are expected to cement a year of solid relations this month by signing a cautious yet friendly agreement on joint use of a tract of sea that has deeply divided them.
Foreign ministry officials from both countries are set to meet for talks leading to a deal on security and cooperation in the South China Sea. The talks, the first covering “Sino-Philippine South China Sea issues,” will take place in China, Beijing’s official Xinhua News Agency reported. The two parties have not announced a date.
“It would [lead to] a more improved relationship with China, and a stable Philippine and China relationship is not going to be a bad thing for the Philippines in terms of its economy and security,” said Sass Rogando Sasot, a Philippine national and international relations scholar at Leiden University College in The Hague.
Prime fishing grounds, possible oil and gas deposits at stake
China and the Philippines dispute sovereignty over the prime fishing grounds of Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands, where oil and gas may lurk under the seabed. The shoal dispute sparked a standoff between vessels in 2012. China now controls the feature off the west coast of the Philippine island Luzon.
China’s growing maritime presence led the Philippines to file for world court arbitration that ended in July 2016 with a ruling in favor of Manila. The verdict was rejected by Beijing.
First agreement may be short on details
An initial agreement on the South China Sea might not reach into specifics but would reflect a joint statement signed in October when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing to start easing relations that were strained under his processor, analysts say.
“They have to produce something, because this issue has lingered on more than a decade already,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.
Framework of agreements already visible
China and the Philippines decided in October to improve cooperation between their coast guards, study a way of handling “emergency incidents” and pursue “humanitarian and environmental concerns,” including protection of the marine environment, according to a text of the statement.
A deal would let China tell other countries it can work peacefully with Southeast Asian maritime claimants after the world court ruling and without pressure from the United States, a historic military ally of the Philippines, said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“On the part of the China, it’s very keen to keep using the Philippines as sort of a center of peace of its very peaceful approach to the South China Sea after the arbitral award that was released last year,” Koh said. “And in fact you see it’s using it as a very good counterpoint to say ‘hey look, the U.S. shouldn’t come into the Philippines despite the fact that the Philippines is an ally.’”
Other Asian countries have interests and claims to the South China Sea
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam also claim parts of the sea, conflicting with China’s past half-decade of landfilling of small, disputed islets in preparation for military deployment. Taiwan, like China, claims more than 90 percent of the 3.5 million square-kilometer sea. China has stepped up talks with other Southeast Asian claimants as well since the world court ruling.
Future talks could gradually move China and the Philippines toward a detailed usage agreement like a 2004 Sino-Vietnamese deal that delineates who can fish where in the shared Gulf of Tonkin, Sasot forecast. That pact took six years and 17 meetings to finalize.
Under a similar Sino-Philippine agreement, fishing boats and contractors looking for oil and gas at sea might have a better idea of where they can operate without risking a confrontation.
President Duterte has support at home
Filipinos largely trust Duterte, in turn raising their trust in China, Sasot said. The president, who took office in June, has helped smooth relations with China in part by asking the United States to reduce military aid despite staunch support after U.S. colonization of the Philippines ended in 1946. The Philippines and the United States called off annual joint patrols of the South China Sea.
Beijing offered the Philippines a $24 billion pledge of aid and investment in October. Timing and specific projects would depend on how much the Philippines, small and impoverished compared to China, cooperates with Beijing’s maritime ambitions including via any deals reached, experts believe.
“The Philippines seeks large-scale Chinese investments or aid in infrastructure projects and guarantees that Chinese vessels will not infringe on its fishing and resource extraction operations in its Philippine waters,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.
“Because of the power imbalance between the two countries, negotiations will mostly be on Beijing's terms, so it can be expected that any relevant commitments will be vague enough to avoid damaging Chinese interests in the future,” he said.