In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) rejected most of the Chinese claims in the case on disputed “islands” in South China Sea brought to the Court by the Philippines. The verdict triggered widespread fears of a further escalation of the conflict between China and the Philippines as well as the other claimants and the United States. Yet, the near simultaneous ruling by the PCA and the change in Philippine administration from President Benigno Aquino to Rodrigo Duterte created a “ripe moment” for a fundamental transformation of the crumbling Sino-Chinese bilateral relations.
In May 2017 two groups of Muslim fighters raided the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines. After five months of fighting, the Philippine military finally announced that the city was reconquered from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups that supposedly had ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This incident resembles a crisis in 2013 when members of another armed group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), entered the city of Zamboanga and battled government troops for weeks. But whereas the Zamboanga crisis neither attracted much foreign attention nor was linked to international jihadism, the fighting in Marawi has been portrayed as part of larger conflict between militant Islamism and the civilised world – a narrative that is lacking substantial empirical evidence.
On July 12, 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague handed down its verdict on the case against China brought to the Court by the Philippines in 2013. The award nullified most of the Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Following China’s rejection of both the Court’s jurisdiction and its adverse decision, confrontation seemed looming. Yet, a year later the storm clouds have dispersed. The rather surprising absence of any crisis in the region rests on two coinciding factors: the legal standards for “islands” developed in the verdict and the change in government in the Philippines.
June 30, 2016 saw the inauguration of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines. The next day Ronald Dela Rosa became the new Director General of the Philippine National Police. With the two came their longstanding strategy for dealing with crime from Davao City to the Philippine nation: tolerate or actively endorse the killing of suspects. One year later, several thousand people have died at the hands of on-duty policemen and vigilantes in a ferocious campaign that aims at eradicating a problem through “social cleansing”. Although public support for Duterte continues, the Philippines staggers towards an increasingly authoritarian state.