Angry Then Apologetic Tweets From Philippines Foreign Minister Highlight Diplomatic Tensions in South China Sea

A series of alternately profane and obsequious tweets from the Philippines’ foreign minister were an unusually public demonstration of the diplomatic tightrope Southeast Asian countries walk regarding the South China Sea. China claims the entire sea as its own—an assertion a 2016 United Nation’s tribunal found “has no basis in law”—and has repurposed a number of reclaimed islands and reefs to stake its claim. Countries bordering the South China Sea often voice complaints about China’s revanchism but generally mute their criticism for a variety of reasons, including recently access to vaccines. The Tweets from Teddy Locsin Jr., the Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the Philippines, were unusually frank:

During a 2015 White House visit, Xi Jinping said that “China does not intend to pursue militarisation” in the South China Sea. Yet the presence of massive steel-hulled vessels, some tied to China’s maritime militia, and a recent aircraft carrier group exercise have underscored the martial atmosphere in the region. At The New York Times, Steven Lee Myers and Jason Gutierrez detailed the events that triggered the Twitter outburst:

Not long ago, China asserted its claims on the South China Sea by building and fortifying artificial islands in waters also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Its strategy now is to reinforce those outposts by swarming the disputed waters with vessels, effectively defying the other countries to expel them.

[…] “Beijing pretty clearly thinks that if it uses enough coercion and pressure over a long enough period of time, it will squeeze the Southeast Asians out,” said Greg Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, which tracks developments in the South China Sea. “It’s insidious.”

[…] The latest incident has unfolded in recent weeks around Whitsun Reef, a boomerang-shaped feature that emerges above water only at low tide. At one point in March, 220 Chinese ships were reported to be anchored around the reef, prompting protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, which both have claims there, and from the United States. [Source]

Reuters documented the response from China’s diplomats, who in recent years have become famous for an abrasive “wolf warrior” style of diplomacy:

“Facts have repeatedly proved that microphone diplomacy cannot change the facts, but can only undermine mutual trust,” it said.

“It is hoped that relevant people in the Philippines will comply with basic etiquette and their position when making remarks.”

Duterte has reminded his officials that there is no room for cursing in the matter of diplomacy. “Only the President can cuss,” his spokesman, Harry Roque, told a regular news conference. [Source]

Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines president, has built cozy ties with the Chinese government, famously saying: “I announce my separation from the United States,” during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2016. Duterte attempted to paste over the foreign minister’s Twitter outburst by saying, “China remains to be our benefactor.” But the warm words belie a significant shift in relations. The conflict is also related to an annual Chinese fishing ban first imposed in 1999 that bars fishermen from plying their trade during the summer months—at least on paper. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have instructed commercial fleets to ignore the ban. In a nod to that conflict, Duterte told China: “So, kindly just allow our fishermen to fish in peace and there is no reason for trouble.” At Foreign Policy, Derek Grossman wrote that Beijing has backed the Philippines into a corner, forcing it to once again align itself with the United States:

Locsin’s Twitter storm is only the latest indication that Beijing’s rising assertiveness—especially its challenge to the Philippines’ internationally recognized maritime claims—has finally forced Manila’s hand. Duterte now recognizes, in spite of his continued rhetoric to the contrary, that China is no friend, and the Philippines needs its long-standing security ally—the United States—after all.

[…] Beijing has only itself to blame if it has lost the opportunity to pull the Philippines out of the U.S. orbit. China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has made it virtually impossible for Duterte to push his pro-China and anti-U.S. agenda. For example, starting in early 2019 through early 2020, China encircled Thitu Island, one of the largest Philippine-controlled Spratly Islands that China claims, with coast guard and fishing militia boats, totaling hundreds of vessels over the course of the year. In February 2020, only days after Duterte cancelled the VFA, a Chinese navy ship—in what the Philippine military called “a hostile act”—targeted a Philippine navy ship that had been patrolling disputed seas. In April 2020, Beijing officially declared the establishment of administrative control over the disputed islands.

[…] Moreover, Beijing’s growing assertiveness has only made it more difficult for Duterte to overcome pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment among his own country’s population. Nor has he been able to assuage the concerns of the staunchly pro-U.S. Philippine defense establishment, which sees China as Manila’s top threat. Politically, Philippine Senate members are angry with Duterte’s policy of refusing to stand up to China and his blatant disregard for the country’s traditional alliance with the United States. [Source]

China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia are not alone in their concern about the South China Sea. A European Union spokesperson said that “tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability.” Just days after taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden deployed an aircraft carrier group to the region to “ensure freedom of the seas.” In a Bloomberg opinion piece, retired Navy admiral James Stavridis noted that the waters of the South China Sea are teeming with military vessels from across the globe:

Alongside all those maritime silhouettes, you will also see the warships of many nations — China and the U.S., to be sure, but also local combatants from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Other Asia-Pacific nations, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and South Korea, maintain a military presence. And warships from other side of the world — France, Germany, the U.K. — routinely deploy there as well. [Source]

To China’s nationalists, the South China Sea is a redline issue. They reacted to the aforementioned 2016 UN tribunal ruling with anger. At Peking University, school security worked to prevent nationalist demonstrations both in- and outside of the campus gates. Censors strictly review any content on the South China Sea, and all foreign material that does not include China’s 10-dash, née nine-dash, line “should be refused.”

China has also targeted the Filipino public’s opinion on the issue. In September of 2020, Facebook shut down a misinformation campaign that, among other things, lauded China’s South China Sea policy. In a further sign that China views discussion of the South China Sea to be off-limits, a deputy director at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences warned in an essay for Global Times that if the Philippines “continues to hype up the South China Sea disputes this may further affect bilateral relations. It could harm cooperation to fight against the pandemic.”

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