What a navy ship stranded on a South China Sea shoal reveals about China-Philippine relations

Nong Hong says the quick extraction of the Philippine navy ship from Half Moon Shoal indicates that, even though China-Philippines relations may face troubled political waters, economic considerations could provide an anchor

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2018, 2:30am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2018, 11:17am

The Philippine navy frigate, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, ran aground on Half Moon Shoal in waters off the disputed Spratly Islands on August 29. The frigate is one of the three ships the Philippines armed forces acquired from the US coastguard, and are currently the largest warships owned by the Philippines.

Half Moon Shoal lies about 110km (68 miles) from the southern tip of the western Philippine island of Palawan and south of the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, where a Philippine navy transport ship was intentionally grounded in 1999 and has since served as a military outpost for the country. 

Philippine defence officials notified the Chinese government after the accidental grounding, but rejected China’s offer of assistance. Philippine military officials talked about “ongoing coordination” with the US for assistance to recover the stranded warship.

Four Philippine navy and coastguard ships were reportedly deployed to secure the BRP Gregorio del Pilar and provide food and other supplies to its sailors.

According to a Philippines military spokesman, two commercial tugboats were hired to extricate the ship and tow it to a Philippine port for repairs on September 3.

US will be ‘good ally’ to Philippines if China invades, official says

The ship was retrieved much more quickly than many international and regional analysts thought it would be. China was very wary about a recurrence of the 1999 grounding of the Philippine navy transport ship that effectively allowed the Filipinos to “occupy” Second Thomas Shoal.

The United States worried that the Chinese offer to help extricating the frigate would turn out to be a “diplomatic victory”, in favour of China’s “public common good” narrative, justifying its construction of islands and facility deployment on the features it occupies in the South China Sea.

The Philippines was concerned that allowing China to lead the rescue mission would give Beijing the upper hand in the territorial and maritime dispute.

Watch: The South China Sea dispute explained 

Some view the Philippine government’s refusal of China’s help as being in line with President Rodrigo Duterte’s reversal of his earlier Beijing-friendly policy

In a speech on August 14, Duterte said that China’s claim to airspace above newly built islands and surrounding waters in the disputed South China Sea “is wrong” and Beijing should not tell others to leave those areas to avoid possible clashes.

The US and Japan’s behind-the-scenes support to these opposition forces against Duterte’s South China Sea policy should not be overlooked

His speech was seen as rare public criticism of China, targeted at an audience that included the American ambassador and other foreign guests.

Since an arbitration tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines against China over features in the South China Sea in July 2016, the Philippines has moved rapidly to normalise its relations with China.

The two countries have established an inter-governmental consultation and negotiation mechanism to manage their South China Sea disputes and bilateral cooperation on law-enforcement mechanisms and fisheries have made significant progress.

However, Duterte’s outreach to China and his sidelining of the arbitration award has been met with great resentment and resistance within sections of the Filipino political establishment.

How the Philippines can play peacemaker with China and Asean

There have been constant calls for Duterte to resist China’s economic “lure” and insist on enforcing the award.

A June poll indicated that 87 per cent of respondents wanted the Philippines to reclaim islands that have been occupied by China. Meanwhile, the US and Japan’s behind-the-scenes support to these opposition forces against Duterte’s South China Sea policy should not be overlooked.

Therefore, despite the continued improvement in China-Philippine relations, the bilateral consultations independent of the arbitration award and the promotion of bilateral maritime cooperation, ties between the two countries may not be all smooth sailing this year.

Nevertheless, the Philippines is still counting on its relations with China for the realpolitik of securing economic aid.

During a meeting in Beijing on August 22, Philippine Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez personally thanked Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi for China’s infrastructure support.

Weary and wary, Duterte takes China to task over South China Sea

The two countries are also on the same page when it comes to preparing for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to the Philippines at the end of the year.

Philippine Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said on August 29 that Xi may agree to more funding, such as for an industrial park catering to Chinese enterprises.

The discussion on joint exploration of deep-sea resources is also on the table.

The quick extrication of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar sends a positive signal for bilateral relations between China and the Philippines in the context of the South China Sea. There was no recurrence of the 1999 grounding.

China did not play “the public good” card, as the US had anticipated. China should also feel relieved that there has been no proven US intervention behind the scenes in the “grounding” and “rescue” of the Philippine frigate.

It is essential that China and the Philippines, as two major claimants in the South China Sea dispute, maintain a friendly atmosphere and avoid any disruption of confidence-building between the two countries, while pushing for a final agreement of the text of the code of conduct for the South China Sea.

Equally important is that the trust deficit between China and the US should not be further expanded by this unexpected event.

Nong Hong, PhD, is executive director and senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies (US). www.chinaus-icas.org