At the annual Boao Forum for Asia held last year on 21 April 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping decisively launched the concept of Global Security Initiative (GSI) to embrace the principle of “indivisible security” that the academe has been discussing for decades since the end of the cold war. Indivisible security contends that one nation’s security is inextricably linked with the security of other nations. It simply means that security is a shared interest of all nations.
Western Europe first used this principle to describe the “invisibility of security in Europe” mandated by the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, which was an outcome of the Third Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). In the GSI, China applies the principle of indivisible security to the wider global community of nations in order to build a shared future for the humanity where the security of one nation shall not cause the insecurities of others.
The GSI provides six noble commitments to promote global security: (1) Common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security; (2) Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries; (3) Abiding by the purpose and principles of the United Nations Charter; (4) Taking the security concerns of all countries seriously; (5) Peacefully resolving disputes between countries through dialogue; and (6) Maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional fields.
Examining closely the GSI shows that its six commitments reinforce and implement the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia, which pursues the following core values:
- Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations;
- The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion and coercion;
- Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
- Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means; and,
- Renunciation of threats or use of force
These are the core values that China and ASEAN Member States (AMS) strongly hold dear. China was, in fact, the first country in the world that acceded to TAC because of the convergence of security perspectives. The GSI not only supports TAC but enriches it.
Complementing the TAC, the GSI champions the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in managing a panoply of security issues in the Asia Pacific amidst growing great power rivalry. The TAC and the GSI are building a security community in Asia where the use of violence or threat of the use of force against each other has become unlikely.
A security community in Asia guaranteed by the GSI and TAC intimately connects China and its neighbors to enjoy amicable and friendly relations of a dependable expectations of peaceful development to the point at which there is, as what Karl Deutch contends, a “real assurance that the members of that community will not fight each other physically” but will settle their disputes diplomatically.
The GSI and the TAC arguably provide useful blueprints to set the direction of Philippines-China security relations.
It is a morose, however, that security is the weakest part of Philippines-China bilateral ties. Regrettably, military-to-military relations between the countries remain dismal compared with their economic relations. The two countries’ military establishments are now at odds with each other because of the current deficit of effective dialogues, interactions and communications. Their Annual Defense and Security Talks (ADST) aiming to build confidence and promote cooperation has not been convened since their last meeting in 2017.
Apparently, their respective defense institutions still have intractable mutual suspicions. To restore friendly tie, their security organizations need to work harder to rebuild confidence and promote mutual trusts. Sadly, territorial disputes and maritime jurisdictional conflicts in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) disrupt not only security cooperation but also economic and other aspects of their bilateral ties.
It is therefore essential for the Philippines and China to manage their differences on the WPS so they can improve and strengthen their wretched security relations. The GSI and the TAC will just be a cacophony finding no meaning in the Philippines and even in Southeast Asia if there is no substantive improvement in Philippines-China security relations.
Right now, the Philippine is hardening its position on the WPS because of domestic agenda and external pressures from the Western world, specifically from the United States. As a great power, China shall exert greater effort to reach out the Philippines in order reopen their channels of communication for purposes of coordinating their unilateral actions in the WPS.
If not properly coordinated, unilateral actions of both parties can raise the risk of accidents, miscalculations, and errors in judgment leading to unintended violent encounters at sea. Pending a mechanism for coordination, China and the Philippines should implement the mandate of the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for both parties take a conciliatory approach and to deliberately avoid hostile actions against each other in order to avoid violent encounters at sea. When undertaking unilateral activities in disputed areas, UNCLOS requires parties to promote cooperation, consultation, and prior notification.
To peacefully settle maritime jurisdictional disputes, UNCLOS provides three types of provisional arrangements of a practical nature in disputed areas: 1) Development Cooperation Arrangement; 2) Provisional Boundary Agreement; and, 3) Mutual Restraint Arrangements.
To deescalate the current tension in the WPS and to calm the overall security situation in the South China Sea (SCS), it is imperative for China and the Philippines to come out with a mutual restraint arrangement in order to commit both parties to avoid unilateral actions that can raise the risk deadly collisions and other unintended violent encounters at sea. With this arrangement, Philippines-China relations in the WPS can help realize the lofty goals of the GSI and the TAC in building a security community of shared future not only for the two nations but also for the rest of the world.
The Philippines and China need to embrace the principle that in the WPS and in the greater SCS region, security is also indivisible to all littoral and user states. Hence, both parties shall work in tandem by acting together and not against each other in order to ensure amity and cooperation in the WPS and the SCS where security is also indivisible.
Remarks delivered at the 2nd Phnom Penh Forum on Minilateralism, ASEAN Centrality, and Great Power Rivalry organized by the International Relations Institute of Cambodia on 25 October 2023.