The best course of action for Manila in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) still lies in adroit diplomacy combined with continuing efforts to build a minimum credible defense. To this end, the second meeting of the Philippines-China Bilateral Consultation Mechanism and on-going ASEAN-China negotiations for a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (SCS) should be welcomed as steps on the right direction. Upgrades and modernization of our facilities in the Kalayaan Islands are underway to improve the living conditions of our people and our troops in our smallest but most critical municipality. That said, much remains to be done in the Philippines’ territorial and maritime rights defense.
‘No taunt or flaunt’ stays
The Duterte administration decided not to assert the tribunal ruling (for now) for understandable grounds. Resolving the longstanding, complicated, and multiparty territorial and maritime disputes by way of asserting the ruling rests on the assumption that, in the absence of an enforcement mechanism, the international community will stand by the Philippines and pressure China to comply. The President saw the foundation of this assumption as weak and thought that it would be imprudent to put the nation’s undivided fate on it. He had seen the limits of what the country can obtain from the international community when China commenced the construction of artificial islands while the arbitration case was on-going. That was very telling and instructive to him.
Aside from US’ freedom of navigation operations and few official statements from some states which made oblique references to China’s activities, the international community largely stood by while China accomplished what it set out to do. The Philippines felt like an orphan in ASEAN and a damsel in distress begging for the activation of a loosely-defined Article V of a Mutual Defense Treaty whose deterrent capacity has since eroded in his eyes. China was able to weather whatever criticisms that came out after its action. In fact, China, rightly or wrongly, saw the arbitration as a causus belli as lawfare and retaliated accordingly by building the artificial islands. Hence, one can even argue that Philippines’ failure to foresee China’s reaction played into Beijing’s hand and gave it domestic legitimacy for its artificial island-building adventure.
The Philippines already got burned for taking the frontline while others sat back and watched the show. For that reason, Duterte does not want to go down the same name-and-shame strategy again. Perhaps, if other claimants take the cudgels, he may reconsider his position. Like other major powers, China rarely responds to pressure lest it be seen as feeble by its domestic public and their peers. The more it is pressed, the more it will take a hardline stance. This will narrow the room for diplomacy and unnecessarily increase the political, economic, and security costs for Manila with no clear benefit in sight. Other countries will just free ride with the Philippines again but will keep a safe distance cautious of the consequences of such support to their burgeoning economic ties with China. They may even use their support or threat to support as a bargaining chip in their own dealings with Beijing. China is now the world’s largest trading nation and the largest trade partner to 124 countries. Duterte is unconvinced that we can reasonably expect these countries to come out strongly on our side in relation to the dispute. Therefore, he does not see the value of Manila exposing itself again to such costs when the chance of success is dismal and when other measures are still under play and not yet fully exhausted.
Raising the ruling now, after relative stability since 2016 and on-going bilateral and regional efforts to manage the situation, is ill-advised and counterproductive. Access to traditional fishing grounds had been restored. There are efforts to cooperate in marine scientific research and offshore energy development. A hotline communication between the Philippines and Chinese coast guards had been put up to manage untoward incidents. The situation in Scarborough Shoal remain unchanged. A Filipino name can be matched for every Chinese name that China will assign to underwater features in the Benham Rise, which is by the way separate and distinct to the West Philippine Sea. Besides, it is unlikely for such Chinese names to be even adopted by international nomenclature. Partnership for marine scientific research is inclusive and open to all interested and capable countries, including China. Thus, Duterte does not see the heightened threat perception coming from critics as being equally shared by his neighbors and fellow claimants.
Are we just too paranoid and vocal or are they just too meek and hopeless? Or have they just kowtowed and been bought by China? While the language of defeatism and acquiescence must really be stamped out, efforts by our leaders to discuss with China should not be seen as succumbing or being too soft. The leaders of Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia find it necessary, even imperative, to hold discussions with China in relation to their disputes. The US and China have multiple levels of dialogue and engagement in far-ranging fields, despite continued frictions.
Be worthy as friend or foe
The Philippines was one of the pioneers in occupying features in the West Philippine Sea and asserting its jurisdiction on the same dating back to the 1970s. China, in fact, is just a late comer. The failure of successive governments to upgrade and modernize our security and civilian facilities, over reliance on amity and goodwill of neighbors, and overconfidence in the international system worked to our disadvantage. While protesting the illegal occupation and militarization carried out by other claimants, we should also do our part where it is most needed – effecting our claims on the ground. Past defense officials called attention to the urgency of improving our security posture in the area, but lack of political will and bureaucratic wrangling made for lost opportunities.
The improved climate of bilateral relations now and leverage from a favorable landmark ruling allows the Philippine government to have frank and candid discussions on sensitive issues with China. The Bilateral Consultation Mechanism set up in 2016 provides one such appropriate channel. The relative calm post-ruling also provides a good atmosphere to make long-delayed upgrades and modernization of civilian and defensive structures in the Kalayaan Islands. We still occupy among the largest natural features in the contested sea and most of it is being lost not to other claimants but to soil erosion.
It will be a disservice to our settlers and frontline defenders there if we will pin all our hopes in a strategy that Duterte thought had not brought us anywhere. Internationalizing the pitiful state of our brave defenders in Ayungin languishing in a rusting ship beached on a sandbar while much resources are devoted to the legal track is a shameful and humiliating exercise for him. Duterte appears to be a staunch believer in realpolitik. Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia never allowed foreign bases and downplayed the presence of foreign troops in their soil, yet were able to put up a modest defensive posture, while keeping engagement with China. The President thought that Philippines should not put itself in a pitiful situation and ask the international community to salvage it out. This is especially so if such help comes with unwarranted attached conditions and involve entanglement with other countries’ agendas. For Duterte, it does not make us look worthy as friend or foe.
This article appeared at Rappler and is reprinted with permission.