Managing SCS dispute between PH and China amid US-China strategic competition

First of 2 parts

FOREIGN Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a telephone conversation yesterday, December 20. According to Manalo, both sides had a frank and candid exchange and ended their call with a clearer understanding of their respective positions on a number of issues. Manalo said that he hoped to manage differences in a way that is acceptable to both sides and to promote the cooling down of tensions and the prevention of conflicts. He further said that the Philippine side is willing to strengthen dialogue with China in good faith, make good use of the bilateral communication mechanism on maritime issues, and jointly seek a solution to the issue.

On the other hand, the Chinese foreign minister urged the Philippine side to prioritize properly managing the current maritime situation in the disputed SCS. He also said that being neighbors separated by a strip of water, China and the Philippines should settle disputes through consultation, noting that this is not only an effective way for neighbors to get along with each other but also a useful experience for China-Philippines relations to improve. He likewise said that China is committed to jointly resolving differences through dialogue and consultation to maintain maritime stability.

The two sides agreed to hold a meeting on the bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea as soon as possible and actively create favorable conditions for it.

Indeed, that phone conversation between Manalo and Wang serves as a beacon of hope and is a significant mark and step forward amid the rising tensions in the SCS between the Philippines and China. It makes us optimistic that the willingness of both sides to engage in diplomatic dialogue, with the aim of negotiating and finding a mutual and amicable resolution to their maritime disagreements, will yield fruitful outcomes, become a standard approach, set a precedent for future interactions, and will be the norm rather than the exception in handling such regional concerns.

Managing SCS dispute

Undoubtedly, there’s a need for a paradigm shift in resolving the dispute over the SCS between the Philippines and China. This is, of the essence, an imperative in the ever-changing, volatile and challenging geopolitical realities of the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific region. In doing so, time is of the essence. However, in the process of a strategy/paradigm shift, specific fundamental points should be factored in and given utmost consideration.

The first consideration is to bear in mind that the shift in strategy or approach has to have a long-term perspective filled with goodwill and pragmatism. There should be a long-term plan based on certain concrete objectives that are future-oriented, bearing in mind the bigger picture, and should be aimed at a peaceful and amicable resolution of the dispute over the contested SCS without either country sacrificing their respective claims and positions.

The second important consideration is moving away from a Western-oriented direct confrontational-megaphone diplomacy way of resolving or settling disputes toward a more oriental or Asian way of dispute resolution, which puts a premium on the preservation of harmony at all costs, keeping discord at a low-key and as much as possible to a minimum, and cordial and pleasant exchanges between the parties.

Third, there should be a clear understanding that the SCS dispute between claimant states, including the Philippines and China, is sensitive and complicated. There is no easy solution to this dispute, and it can’t be resolved overnight. Therefore, the two sides should handle the dispute properly and manage the differences in good faith, with lots of patience, creativity and goodwill.

Fourth, the mindset should shift from a “winner-take-all” mentality and attitude toward a more collective outlook in shifting strategy. The SCS should be treated as a zone of peace, cooperation, and joint development concerning the two countries’ claims and positions.

Regarding what concrete steps should be taken, both sides should maintain active communication. To enhance mutual understanding and build trust, the Philippines and China should fully leverage the dialogue mechanisms created over the years, including the China-Philippines Foreign Ministry Consultations and the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea. In short, active communication between the two sides is the key.

Also, the Philippines should engage China constructively through joint fishery and marine environment management, joint maritime patrol activities, and joint oil and gas exploration. These activities build trust, understanding and confidence between the two countries and their people.

Most importantly, both sides should actively and firmly stay on the positive side of the bilateral relationship and must not allow those differences to hijack the friendship and mutual understanding between them. Thus, it is crucial and imperative for the two sides to have a consensus in good faith that the SCS dispute is not a stumbling block to bilateral relations, friendship, and understanding between the two countries and that the dispute will be handled properly and amicably.

Tug of war

Truth be told, in upholding the principle of amicable negotiations and the path of peaceful dialogue to settle the SCS dispute and steering clear of the role as a vassal in the strategic tug-of-war between China and the US while consciously avoiding becoming entangled in the broader geopolitical chess game between China and the US resonates and aligns deeply with the core interests of the Filipino people. To allow the Philippines to devolve into a theater of external powers’ conflicts would be a profound disservice to the nation’s welfare and a grave disloyalty to its citizens, forsaking the trust and future of the Filipino nation.

Hence, the Philippines should not allow itself to be used as a pawn/proxy by the US in its strategic competition and containment strategy against China, which can extend beyond the maritime domain and affect other areas of international relations and regional affairs, such as trade, regional peace, security, and stability. The US is keen on maintaining, preserving and pursuing its hegemony in the SCS and the broader Asia-Pacific region. This ambition is reflected in its strategic initiatives, notably the Pivot to Asia or the Indo-Pacific strategy, which outlines a comprehensive approach to engaging with and exerting its dominance in the region while pushing its containment strategy against China.

It is true that there is still no comprehensive solution to the dispute in the SCS, and tensions are still present due to overlapping territorial and maritime claims between and among claimant states. Addressing this challenge will require ongoing diplomatic talks and efforts, confidence-building measures, tangible progress in dispute-resolution mechanisms, and the early conclusion of the Asean-China Code of Code (COC) in the SCS.

The Philippines and China, together with the rest of the claimant states, should continue to seek ways to bolster economic ties and manage territorial and maritime disputes in the SCS amicably, diplomatically, and pragmatically while navigating wisely and pragmatically the complex dynamics of regional and global geopolitics and the dispute over the SCS. The Philippines and China should rather focus on win-win pragmatic cooperation instead of conflict/dispute in the SCS and focus on “low politics” like possible joint ventures in how the maritime resources of the SCS should be managed, harnessed, and developed jointly that would benefit both sides tangibly and amicably.

US meddling

On another note, US meddling in the SCS dispute is akin to fueling a fire, complicating further the already complex situation of the SCS. This does not help resolve the issues surrounding the SCS dispute. The US injecting itself into the fray only adds fuel to an already heightening dispute, fanning the flames rather than dampening them, adding layers of complexity rather than untangling the knotty issues surrounding the dispute.

Furthermore, US meddling can complicate diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes pragmatically, diplomatically, and peacefully. It undermines Asean unity and centrality in managing the SCS dispute and could diminish the efficacy of multilateral forums at the Asean level aimed at conflict resolution.


Indeed, it is crucial for the Philippines and China to pursue diplomatic channels and peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms to manage and mitigate the risks brought about by the heightened tensions in the SCS between the two sides. Engaging in confidence-building measures, clarifying intentions, clarifying issues, and establishing and utilizing hotlines for crisis communication can help reduce the chances of misjudgments and further escalation of tensions between the two sides.

Source: The Manila Times

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD), Peking University, Beijing, China. She is currently a director and the Vice President for External Affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a think tank based in Manila. She also serves as the political/geopolitical analyst of ACPSSI. Currently, she is a Senior Researcher of the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) and a Senior Research Fellow of the Global Governance Institution (GGI). She is also the President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines. Prof. Anna Uy taught Political Science, International Relations, Development Studies, European Studies, Southeast Asia, and China Studies. She is a researcher-writer, academic, and consultant on a wide array of issues. She has worked as a consultant with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs.