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China, Philippines Living By Tacit Deals at Sea despite Sovereignty Dispute

Students burn a Chinese flag as they protest against the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a demonstration outside the Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 20, 2018.
Students burn a Chinese flag as they protest against the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a demonstration outside the Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 20, 2018.

China and the Philippines have learned to live with each other over the past three years at sea despite an unresolved sovereignty dispute, marginalizing a new international legal complaint aimed at Beijing.

Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and the government’s ex-ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed the complaint as civilians March 13 with the International Criminal Court prosecutor. The petitioners told a news conference Friday they want Chinese President Xi Jinping and other people in his government held accountable for what they call crimes at sea.

The case is seen also as a swipe at Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government withdrew from the court in mid-March and has made friends with China since 2016 without resolving the sovereignty dispute.

Duterte cited China’s stronger military and willingness to give Manila development aid as reasons to improve relations. China, in turn, wants to be seen around Asia as a good neighbor. Now the two governments consult periodically and avoid acts that inflame the other side.

“There’s no need for active cooperation,” said Eduardo Araral, associate public policy professor at the National University of Singapore. “As long as they don’t bring in those big tourist ships and dump garbage in the ocean or do overfishing in Philippine waters, I think the Philippines would just be happy to let things be as they are.”

Legal complaint

The Philippines withdrew from the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court March 17. The country began its withdrawal process last year after the prosecutor started a war crimes probe into Duterte’s deadly strikes against Filipino drug dealers. The prosecutor could technically build a case from the March 13 complaint, as well.

“That (Xi Jinping) is powerful does not deter anyone from filing a case against him,” Carpio-Morales told the news conference as broadcast by Philippines news network ABS-CBN. “Let’s all be optimistic. Are you reminded of the case of David and Goliath?”

But the complaint is unlikely to sway Sino-Philippine relations, political experts say.

Tacit agreements

The two countries have informally agreed to avoid provoking each other, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

“I think that’s a kind of an untold, tacit understanding,” Huang said. “I think it’s the leaderships’ decision.”

China lets Philippine fishing boats use waters around Scarborough Shoal, a fisheries-rich islet where Beijing took control in 2012, analysts have said. China also let the Philippines build on Thitu Island in a different part of the disputed sea last year, though it sent scores of boats to check out the construction in December and January. China in 2016 pledged $24 billion in aid and investment for the Philippines.

Duterte’s government avoids criticizing China in international bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The two countries in November signed a memorandum of understanding to explore together for fossil fuels under the seabed.

Beijing claims about 90 percent of the sea including tracts in the Philippine exclusive economic zone off their west coasts. China has angered Manila as well as three other Southeast Asian governments over the past decade by building up small isles for military use.

Anti-China sentiment

The 17-page complaint to the international court’s prosecutor says Xi should be accountable for “crimes against humanity over China's activities in the South China Sea” as the acts have “deprived Filipino fishermen of food and livelihood,” state-run Philippine News Agency reported.

A tense standoff in 2012 over Scarborough Shoal sparked four years of tense relations under Duterte’s predecessor, whose government won a world arbitration court case against China -- but one that effected no change in Chinese use of the sea. China cites historical documents as support for its claims.

Suspicion of China still reflects sentiment among some Filipinos, who prefer Washington to Beijing as a political ally. The legal complaint was filed two months before mid-term congressional elections in the Philippines.

A presidential office spokesman in Manila said Saturday the complaint may be “futile,” domestic news website reported. China will ignore the complaint because it does not represent an official stance, Philippine News Agency said.

“It’s a political play going on here,” said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines. “I think it’s less about the actual case than about going against the government and China.”