Updated 17:08 PM PHT Mon, February 6, 2017
Washington, D.C. — The Philippines may "not have much to negotiate" with China if and when their maritime dispute comes down to one-on-one talks, says Murray Hiebert, Southeast Asia Program Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Hiebert sees China's island reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea as a clear sign that it intends to take full and lasting control of the contested sea lane. Any solo effort by other claimant governments to reverse China's actions will likely fall flat.
"It's going to be tough and I think, for the Philippines especially, to bargain by itself, it's in a very weak position," Hiebert says.
Award set aside
It does not help that President Rodrigo Duterte set aside an arbitral award that affirmed much of its maritime claims, Hiebert and another Washington-based academic believe. Neither does Duterte's anti-American rhetoric improve the country's chances at striking a good deal with China.
The United States is the Philippines' only treaty-bound military ally.
Johns Hopkins University Southeast Asia Studies Scholar Marvin Ott says, "When you say we're gonna set it aside, you know, tell the Americans bye-bye, you know, all of that now is basically, I'll say, being thrown away."
In July 2016, an international arbitral tribunal in The Hague decided sweepingly in Manila's favor in a case against Beijing over economic entitlements in the South China Sea.
Manila filed the case under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III.
Ott says Duterte could have taken advantage of the award in getting Beijing to back off from what legally belongs to Manila. Instead, the new President chose to pocket the award and seek friendly ties with Beijing, which had gone cold ever since a 2012 naval standoff in Scarborough Shoal, one of the contested areas.
Beijing has repeatedly rejected the award.
Early on, Duterte announced he would seek one-on-one talks with Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed with Duterte and has since taken a decidedly friendlier tone when speaking to or of the Philippines. Xi's government, however, has insisted on China's ownership of the disputed sea.
Duterte has faced local and international criticism, with some observers saying he had practically given away his country's maritime rights.
But Duterte believes confronting China would be futile, and although he appears to be courting Beijing, he says he will not "go beyond the four corners" of the award. He says he will bring it up with China "when the time is right." When asked what would prompt him to take strong action, he said it would be "if China begins siphoning off" resources from the disputed areas.
Ott says, by then, the situation would be irreversible.
"I have a very large question in my mind whether President Duterte understands what the geopolitical interests of the Philippines are in the South China Sea," he says.
Legal document vs. military might
Hiebert understands the Philippines and other South China Sea claimants have very few options to get China to budge.
Does a legal document counterweigh Beijing's military might? So far, the answer has been "no."
"What can countries that have such weak navies - the Philippines has one of the weakest ones in the region; the Vietnamese have a little more but they also cannot stand up to China," Hiebert says, "what could you do?"
Meanwhile, the new administration in the U.S. has yet to solidify its policy on Asia.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a Senate hearing prior to his confirmation, said China should be barred from accessing the artificial islands, and the U.S. must defend its interests in the South China Sea, i.e. freedom of navigation.
Hiebert believes it is unlikely the U.S. would do something that drastic.
Ott suspects even the U.S. is at a loss over the South China Sea.
"Now there is a matching set of headaches in the Pentagon. The Pentagon, I think it's fair to say, has no idea where this is all going," he says.
But with seven artificial islands, at least some fitted with missile launchers, China may have little more to add to its South China Sea arsenal.
Hiebert says he has it on good authority that the South China Sea "will be very quiet for the next year or two."
He says his sources believe Taiwan and North Korea will be bigger issues for China and the United States - and a showdown in the South China Sea will be unlikely.
That, however, promises little to the Philippines' effort to reclaim its maritime rights.