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  • Writer's pictureMaerten Beuming

'South China Sea Nationalism' - A Political Force for Good?

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

Sitting during the days when the effects of decolonisation were in full swing, the late scholar, and later the Indian Ambassador to the United States, G.L. Mehta wrote in 1958: “It is hardly necessary to emphasize that nationalism in these times is inadequate unless it has an economic and social content and unless it accepts its limitations within the framework of a world society with its obligations and responsibilities. […] Nationalism in Asia is not necessarily anti-Western because it was born in opposition to Western imperialism; indeed, Asian nations have been reconciled in most cases to a new relationship with the West which has to be based on equality and self-respect rather than force and conquest” (p.94-95). With this statement, Mehta highlights a sense of hope during what was an exciting chapter for human history: an ending of colonial subjugation, an opening to a possibility for a world of independent collaboration in a freer world and how Asian nationalism could be a positive political force for newly independent governments.

Whilst Meta prophesied an ideal, positive form of nationalism in Asia which would allow for international collaboration, in recent years, rather than nationalism as a positive force of collaboration, we have seen the rapid increase of populist-nationalist politics at a global scale, which is increasingly fueled by nationalist sentiments - quite the opposite of what Meta had envisioned. Noted by scholars, terms along the lines of “neglect” and “segregated” have arguably been creating a setting of “us vs. them” in the political world, in which marginalized groups of society are increasingly more volatile to populist figures to fill a void of representation. For the case in this article, in my perception - based on the article “Varieties of Populism: An Analysis of the Programmatic Character of Six European Parties” (2004) by de Raadt, Hollanders and Krouwel - populist politics can be defined, although not purely undemocratic, as an ideology that places the people against the given political power structure, as well as the societal ideas and beliefs associated with political power. This concept thus breaks down populist movements as a call for “the removal of the establishment, a rejection of their values and a cry for their replacement so that the direct link between people-and the political leadership can be restored” (p. 1). Arguably, this emphasized connection between the people and the country’s leading figure is meant to reflect the readjusted national will and values. It is from this point that I argue that populist-nationalism, particularly in Asia, can play a disruptive force when extended to a ‘game-theory’ lens - that countries interact with each other as much like a game of chess in order to satisfy their own national interests.

The South China Sea dispute represents an interesting case of ‘South China Sea Nationalism’ - a term I coin to encompass the various ways in which the rise of nationalism in the South China Sea region has increasingly influenced relations, and subsequently tensions, in the region. A region encompassing 3.5 million km², it is the scene of geopolitical competition between China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan expressed in territorial claims. Despite years of contestation amongst the aforementioned nations over islands and bodies of land* scattered throughout the South China Sea, headlines at the beginning of 2023 indicate a deepening of relations - notably between the Philippines and China. CNN headlines with “China and Philippines agree to ‘manage differences’ on South China Sea” and “Philippines’ Marcos Seeks Foreign Minister Talks with China on Maritime Disputes” by The Diplomat highlight a surprising switch of foreign policy in the region - a switch towards collaboration rather than the ‘blame-game’ and finger-pointing that has been prominent in terms of geopolitical strategy.

*Following an Arbitral Tribunal in 2016 (the Republic of the Philippines vs. The People’s Republic of China) rejected Chinese claims in the South China Sea that contend with Philippine territorial claims, stating that there was no basis in international law. This ruling was constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.

To understand how recent shifts in Chinese-Philippine relations have influenced South Chinese Sea nationalism, you must first observe the way in which the power structures in each country works. China is easy to determine: a one-party state headed by Xi Jinping that, since removing China’s two-term limit in 2018, has remained the Head of State in almost all national affairs. Power is cemented in Xi Jinping and select individuals he chooses. Whilst the Chinese power structure can be observed from a variety of different lenses, when looking at the Chinese political structure through this context an argument can be made that Chinese politics is heavily populist-oriented - singled around an overarching powerful figure that acts in the interests of his people.

In comparison, the Philippines’ democratic system only allows for a single presidential term that spans six years, without an opportunity to rerun for the country’s highest political position. This drastically influences how Philippine presidents have approached political agendas, often having to crunch their own personal ambitions within a significantly short time span. This is reflected in the three presidential regimes that came before current President Marcos Jr.: Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016), and Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022). In summary:

  • Presidents Arroyo and Duterte have openly welcomed China into Filipino affairs. Arroyo had the pretense of a growing China - a China that was still significantly weak on the global scene at the time of her presidency in comparison to today - as a positive investment opportunity to boost national economic growth in order to cement her regime’s legitimacy. President Duterte followed suit six years later by growing Chinese-Philippine economic ties, and often turning a blind eye towards Chinese incursions in the South China Sea - arguably swayed by the prospect of Chinese foreign investments and Duterte’s will to continue severing ties with the United States following U.S. outspokenness over Duterte’s War on Drugs.

  • President Aquino III represents a gap in between two ‘pro-Chinese’ presidents: taking a hardline approach to Chinese incursions into Philippine territories, Aquino arranged for increased U.S.-Philippine military cooperation in an attempt to avert further Chinese aggressive incursions that represent acts of hard-power strategy.

Following these presidencies, current President Marcos Jr. is also considered by many to be a populist figure. However, unlike President Duterte who embodies the “complete populist,” Marcos Jr. can be branded, in the words of Richard Heydrian, as “nostalgic populism” - a return to the Philippine glory days under his father (see article “‘Maharlika Wealth Fund’? Or the Funneling of Wealth” for more context). With the backdrop of one populist regime to another, Marcos Jr. represents a crossroad of Philippine foreign policy. Simply put, will he follow in the footsteps of Arroyo and Duterte and pursue the pro-Chinese route of foreign policy, or take a move out of the Aquino playbook and fix U.S.-Philippine relations? Recent news, however, seems to indicate the former.

Since President Marcos Jr. 's state visit to Beijing the beginning of 2023 (the first of his presidency), a joint-statement claiming that both President Xi Jinping and Marcos Jr. indicate a will for collaboration regarding the debated South China Sea dispute. Both sides have agreed to set their respective top-diplomats to ensure peaceful cooperation, as well as combined efforts to coordinate efforts regarding fishing, territorial patrols, and notably oil & gas exploration in the South China Sea. This is topped with further bilateral trade agreements, technological development in an effort to boost Philippine economic growth following two and a half years of self-imposed border restrictions. Despite talks with President Xi Jinping, it is also clear that President Marcos Jr. sees value in maintaining positive U.S relations, with discussions between U.S. Vice-President Harris and Marcos Jr. over 21 new projects (which include defense sites) reflecting the U.S.’s commitment to maintaining influence in the Philippines.

It is clear that Marcos Jr. understands the unique position the Philippines sits in when considering the potential rise of a bilateral world order. Both China and the U.S. are vying for influence on the man who sits in Malacañang Palace. Unlike President Marcos Jr.’s adversaries, the President understands how both major powers could bring drastic economic change to the country following the post-COVID 19 lockdown. It is arguably in the interest of his presidency, and that of the country, that allowing a level of foreign influence from both ends would also push his nationalistic ambitions of rebuilding a Philippines that resembled the once “Pearl of the Orient.” With this, it could be argued that South East China Sea nationalism, in the case of the Philippines, is not a positive force in terms of maintaining regional stability, as in the search of national development, Marcos Jr. invites more competition into an already hotly contested region. This all comes together as Philippine nationalism plays a role as it dictates how much foreign investment is welcomed into the country, extending further to the geopolitical role it plays in the South East Asian region. Whilst it is too early to determine whether the effects of such growing competition over the Philippines will serve both the Filipinos and the country positively in the coming years, what can be contended is the fact that “invited” competition between the U.S. and China does not aid deescalation in one of the world’s flashpoints of conflict.


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