China is expected to ignore a Philippine protest against creation of an "administrative center" on a disputed islet because Manila has few means to follow up, but the outcry could throttle Beijing’s eventual pursuit of more legal control over Asia’s most hotly disputed sea.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on April 30 rejected China’s “illegal designation” of Fiery Cross Reef as an administrative center, according to the department’s website. Chinese officials point to historical usage records as support for their claims to numerous features in the South China Sea where the reef in question is located.
China will ignore the April 30 protest because the Philippines lacks the military might or diplomatic clout to force its hand, South China Sea watchers say.
“China will do what it wants to do, the Philippines will protest, and these incidents will continue again,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. “But the only thing the Philippines can do at this moment is just protest.”
Fiery Cross Reef, a human-built islet of 274 hectares, supports a runway and has received flights from the Chinese mainland. It’s one of three major islets that Beijing controls in the Spratly archipelago, a group of tiny features in the South China Sea. The Philippines controls 10 islets in the same chain, which is valued for fisheries and energy reserves.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam all contest at least part of China's claims to about 90% of the surrounding 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. China landfilled Fiery Cross Reef among other features before 2017 to step up its military and civilian presence.
China has the region’s strongest armed forces plus the budget to overtake other maritime claimants in building disputed islets for human use.
Since Rodrigo Duterte became Philippine president in 2016, the Philippine government seldom protests openly to Beijing over sovereignty disputes as the two presidents tried to improve relations.
His predecessor filed a landmark world arbitration case in 2013, and three years later a court in The Hague ruled against the legal basis of Beijing’s South China Sea claims. China rejected the ruling.
Protests are especially unlikely now as the Philippines accepts Chinese medical aid to fight COVID-19, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Metro Manila-based advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “People are really preoccupied with the pandemic,” he said.
The latest protest is seen as a record of opposition against China’s move in case Beijing uses it to seek more legal authority in the Spratly Islands. International courts sometimes admit demonstration of effective use to prove a county’s rights to land or sea.
“Legally you need to register your displeasure, your protest and so on officially,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “If you don’t, you will be seen to acquiesce to whatever the other claimants are doing.”
Two Chinese government ministries have already renamed 25 islets and 55 submerged features in the contested sea that stretches from Hong Kong to Borneo, the country’s Civil Affairs Ministry said on its website last month.
Manila’s protest calls Fiery Cross Reef “an integral part of Philippine territory” that belongs to a chain of the Philippine-controlled Kalayaan Island Group. It urged China to “adhere to international law.”
China probably called Fiery Cross Reef an administrative region to consecrate its actual control of the islet, said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo. Chinese officials might eventually redraw their own maps to reflect the new status they just gave it, he said.
“For the Filipinos, they’re in a process of trying to delegitimate the Chinese physical control through trying to create a legal argument or a legal case for their administrative control, which means sovereignty,” Nagy said.