Unpacking the WPS dispute

By Artchil B. Fernandez

The visit to the Philippines last week of China’s Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong highlights once again the dispute in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).  This is the most contentious issue and current major irritant between the two countries.

Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong acknowledged that the maritime dispute has seriously injured the relationship of the two nations. “Maritime issues are an important part of China-Philippine relations that should not be ignored” he said at the opening session of the Philippines and China’s seventh Bilateral Consultations Mechanism on the South China Sea.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations Affairs Ma. Theresa Lazaro also recognized the seriousness of the WPS dispute. “The Philippines and China are in agreement that maritime issues do not comprise the totality of bilateral relations between our two countries. However, maritime issues continue to remain a serious concern to the Filipino people,” Lazaro told the Chinese delegation during the meeting.

China claims 90 percent of WPS based on its nine-dash-line. Although the nine-dash-line was mentioned in 1947, China hardly made any reference to it until recently. To settle the issue, the Philippines challenged China’s claim before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. In 2016 the PCA invalidated China’s nine-dash-line and upheld Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) based on the United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS). China and the Philippines signed and ratified the UNCLOS.  Scarborough Shoal and the Kalayaan Group of Islands fall within Philippine EEZ under UNCLOS hence part of Philippine territory.

Why is China so aggressive in claiming the entire WPS? What is the logic behind China’s forceful expansionist and seemingly imperialistic drive? How should one look at the maritime dispute in the West Philippine Sea in the context of regional and global geopolitics? How do the players view the competing territorial claims in the area?

In a lecture delivered at the Asian Center of UP-Diliman, Dr. John Rennie Short, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, outlined four geographical imaginaries that shape the maritime dispute in WPS. Geographical imaginaries are taken for granted spatial ordering of the world.

The Chinese imaginary looks at the issue of West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as one of encirclement and containment. China feels encircled and contained by the Unites States (US). The 1995-96 crisis, which nearly brought China and the US to war, was a wake-up call to Beijing. US granted visa to then Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui to visit America forcing China to fire three missiles to Taiwan in protest.  In retaliation, the US sent an armada of warships led by aircraft carrier USS Nimitz near Taiwan Strait. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unable to do anything was humiliated, failing to make any response to the presence of US naval ships near mainland China coastline.

Reinforcing China’s paranoia is the 2012 pivot to Asia policy of the Obama administration.  China felt being choked by US and is aggrieved why it is being strangled by a rival superpower. In response, China launched its own counter-containment strategy through military build-up and intensifying gray-zone activities in the WSP. China wants to push the US to the Pacific and clear WSP of American naval presence.

Military build-up involves the creation of artificial islands and equip them military hardware manned by armed personnel.  Gray-zone activities include actions of maritime militias and Chinese coastguard harassing non-Chinese boats. Overall, China’s WPS strategy is intensification of military operations other than war (MOOTW).

Another geographical imaginary is UNCLOS. This is a rules-based global order and is being pushed by the international community as a framework to resolve the maritime dispute. Despite signing and ratifying the UNCLOS China ignores it giving primacy to its desire to break free from perceived US encirclement and containment.

The US imaginary involves its commitment to free and open seas. Free and open seas are crucial to the projection of US naval power in the world. Freedom of navigation for the US is essential to its desire to project global primacy. It cannot allow China therefore to have a free hand in WPS and impede the passage of US ships in the area.

ASEAN imaginary is hedging between China and the US. The aim of ASEAN hedging is minimize being put on the spot and maximize benefits from the two superpowers.  Malaysia’s hedging is to appear neutral while that of Vietnam is intensifying resistance to Chinese aggression. Philippines under Bongbong Marcos (BBM) is hedging towards the US, reversing his predecessor’s China pivot.

The geopolitics of the West Philippine Sea is complex and much nuanced. The Thucydides paradox (tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as a regional or international hegemon) looms on the horizon. How the four geographical imaginaries play out in WPS theatre will determine the outcome of the maritime dispute. China’s paranoia of US encirclement and containment, US drive to remain a global hegemon, the maintenance of rules-based international order and the hedging of minor players are interesting mix. What will exactly emerge from the configuration is hard to tell at this point.

Philippines is deeply immersed in the maritime dispute in the West Philippine Sea for at stake is its territorial integrity.  Ensuring that the country’s territory remains intact is the ultimate challenge facing current and future Philippine administrations.


Happy Birthday Lance Timothy San Juan, Bachelor of Library and Information Science (BLIS), UP School of Library and Information Studies (UPSLIS) – Diliman and Earl Trinidad Villanueva, BS in Tourism, UP Asian Institute of Tourism (AIT) – Diliman.