A diplomatic win, many people said about the announcement of a hotline between the Philippines and China. This was one of the highlights of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s trip to China in January 2023, where he and Chinese President Xi Jinping established a direct line of communications between their two capitals. Specifically, the line would be between departments in each country’s foreign affairs ministries that deal with maritime and border issues. The objective was to prevent the escalation of tension in the West Philippine Sea (also referred to as the South China Sea).
In an interview, Marcos Jr. said he proposed the direct communication mechanism to elevate official communication between the two countries to a ministerial level. It would be a confidence-building measure to improve the trust of both sides.
The hotline was put to the test seven months later.
On August 5, the Chinese Coast Guard fired water cannons at Philippine boats that were on a resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre, off Ayungin Shoal, clearly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. A Philippine government representative privy to what was happening behind the scenes said there were frantic efforts to contact the Chinese, specifically through the hotline provided. But calls during the height of the crisis remained unanswered.
We at the Stratbase ADR Institute, together with the U.S. Institute of Peace, held a dialogue on crisis communications in the week following this incident. There were many insights regarding China’s action, or more accurately, non-action with regard to the hotline. It could be that China did not believe what was happening was an emergency or a crisis. The hotline was there, but the incident, at least from the Chinese point of view, was not cause for alarm. And why should it cause alarm? Beijing’s Coast Guard fired the water cannons in the first place.
It could be that for China, the hotline’s establishment was merely for optics. They wanted to appear as though they were listening and ready to talk. The operative word is “appear.” China has been known to say one thing and do the exact opposite. In a joint statement issued during Marcos Jr.’s state visit, the two countries mutually agreed to manage differences in the West Philippine Sea through peaceful means. However, recent sea encounters between the two countries, including the pointing of military-grade lasers, and blocking of resupply missions to Ayungin shoal, among other acts of bullying, prove otherwise.
Experts have suggested many ways to respond to this. “Keep talking,” seemed to be the consensus. Make the issue mainstream. Let civilians, ordinary Filipinos, be aware this is a threat to our sovereignty. Focus on other aspects of country-to-country relations, like trade and economics, instead of confining the matter to security.
The important question though is: Would the hotline still serve a purpose in future similar incidents?
China’s 10-Dash Line
On August 28, China made another bold move: It published what it called a new standard map that now included 10 dash lines, not nine as it had been claiming for a long time. The 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled in the Philippines’ favor, dismissed China’s nine-dash rule as the basis for its claims in the South China Sea and for its aggressive actions.
As expected, expressions of outrage and condemnation over the 10-dash line were quick to come from different countries. Indeed, the new map is an insult to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 arbitral decision. It is very obviously a desperate attempt to disrupt the rules-based international order.
Soon after, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) issued a statement rejecting this map. It said that China’s attempt to legitimize its jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea had no basis under international law. It called on China to “act responsibly and abide by its obligations and UNCLOS and the final and binding 2016 Arbitral Award.” On the same day, the DFA filed a diplomatic protest rejecting the map and calling for a peaceful resolution of the issue.
Other countries expressed similar sentiments. Malaysia lodged a diplomatic protest, noting that the map reflects China’s unilateral claims in the South China Sea near the states of Sabah and Sarawak. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the map had no binding authority over Malaysia.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the inclusion of Vietnam’s Paracel and Spratly islands in the new standard map is a violation of its sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdictional rights under UNCLOS, and noted that the new map held no value as it blatantly disregards international law. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also stated that any line drawn on the map must be in accordance with UNCLOS.
The Stratbase ADR Institute issued a message, strongly and categorically rejecting China’s desperate attempt to legitimize its territorial claims. We added that it is a mockery of the rules-based international order and of basic decency.
In our statement, we noted that the publication of the map “has the dangerous potential of propagating disinformation by advancing the Chinese narrative that the West Philippine Sea is part of their territory. No attempt to redraw geopolitical boundaries will make this acceptable, as this is a blatant violation of international law.”
We applauded like-minded states that have also stood up against China’s map, which represent an expansionist agenda. “The Philippines, its allies, and partners must remain firm in defending the rules-based international order through strategic cooperation to maintain a united front against coercive and antagonistic states,” we said, reiterating that because of the Philippines’ arbitral victory, we are on the right side of history.
But despite efforts of the Philippines and other countries to stand up to China’s bullying and to call it out on its actions, China has remained undaunted. The Chinese Coast Guard continues to make trouble for Philippine boats off Ayungin. There are also recent reports of massive coral reef damage in Philippine territory.
And yet, in the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit held last September in Indonesia, the statement of the ASEAN chair made no mention whatsoever of China’s 10-dash line. ASEAN members are also yet to finalize a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, and individual members of the regional bloc have different sentiments on the issue given their respective bilateral relations with China.
Relying on Allies and the Rules-Based Order
Despite these continuing challenges, the Philippines remains hopeful.
Foremost, this current administration is making a stark departure from the foreign policy stance of its immediate predecessor. Former President Rodrigo Duterte made a vocal and visible pivot to China, claiming this was in pursuit of an independent foreign policy. What it was, in fact, was a policy of appeasement and accommodation, much to the Philippines’ security and even economic detriment.
The current president, Marcos Jr., immediately distanced himself from Duterte’s pro-China policy and was careful to say that only the national interest will dictate his administration’s foreign policy positions. The Philippines will be a friend to all and an enemy to none, he said. These words are aligned with the current geopolitical situation: the world has become multipolar, with not two but many different significant powers, and with numerous traditional, non-traditional and emerging threats.
Backing up Marcos’ pronouncements are various agreements and cooperative bilateral, multilateral and minilateral actions undertaken with states that cherish the same values and principles as the Philippines. The United States, for instance, has remained the most trusted country among Filipinos, according to the most recent Stratbase-commissioned survey by the polling firm Pulse Asia.
In that same survey, conducted in June of this year, 80% of respondents nationwide agreed that alliances should be formed, and relationships should be strengthened, with countries with beliefs similar to those of the Philippines. This is to defend the territory and economic rights of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea and protect the international order.
There are three measures that the Marcos administration should focus on to address the West Philippine Sea issue, according to the survey. Seventy-two percent believe that strengthening the military should be a government priority. Meanwhile, 64% think conducting joint maritime patrols and military exercises with allied countries should also be a priority. Finally, 61% of respondents believe that shifting the focus of Philippine defense institutions and allocating resources to strengthen our ability to defend the country from external threats should likewise be given attention.
Overcoming China’s Rejection of International Law
So, was the so-called hotline a failure?
Even before the announcement of the hotline in January, there has always been an established channel of communication between the Philippines and China. We have always been able to issue notes verbales and talk with Chinese authorities regarding our concerns.
But responsive and meaningful communication between the Philippines and China hinges on the latter’s recognition of its obligations to the international community to respect the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of its counterparts, in general, and the Philippines’ legal victory in 2016 in particular.
Certainly, there is much to be desired in the ongoing relationship between the Philippines and China, and in the pursuit of peace and stability in the West Philippine Sea and in the Indo-Pacific region. Like other countries that respect the established rules-based international order, the Philippines is hopeful that existing mechanisms will be enough to preserve the rule of law, and that the expansionist, aggressive actions of some actors will be highlighted and discouraged on the international stage.
As tensions with China simmer, the Philippines should continue to work with its friends and allies, whose support and cooperation is the real diplomatic win, and the real confidence-building measure, for Manila.
Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the president of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies.