The undulation of Philippine sovereignty in the historically labeled South China Sea is becoming more turbulent. And as the Duterte presidency reaches its three-year mark, the arbitral ruling on the contested waters is also approaching its triennial.
On July 12, 2016, the Hague ruling accorded to the Philippine government the legal victory over the disputed territory.
Legally (and as common sense dictates), China does not have a sole claim on the disputed waters, especially without considering the interests of other parties such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo, Brunei, and Indonesia. As it stands, however, the big Eastern power continues to flex its muscles and has undertaken harassment and military activities to assert its control.
Along with many other countries that seek to maintain safe passage and freedom of navigation, the US, Great Britain, Australia, Japan, India and other powers have expressed their concern. The international community, so to speak, is very much involved in this predicament and seeks to establish a so-called rules-based order in the area.
It is in this respect where the Philippine government, instead of shunning the international community, should make a firm stand toward multilateral relations and agreements. In this way, the neighboring small powers could not be easily led toward bilateral negotiations and become marginalized. More so, the dispute is an international issue and the real parties in interest alongside with the powerful stakeholders should assert an order before it is too late.
On the Philippine side, the precarious mix of appeasement and fear in its foreign policy has beleaguered its sovereign claim and resulted in a position of subjugation to China’s solution to the South China Sea dispute.
Joining the bandwagon of the Belt and Road Initiative, the government has pronounced that it will set aside the arbitral award and pursue bilateral agreements. Clinging to the promise of Chinese investments to fund its infrastructure projects, the government has been led into the trap of an expansionist agenda.
However, it is simply incredible to argue that we need Chinese investments to fund the “Build, Build, Build Program.” This is because, given all its infrastructure projects, it is the government that stands to bear 66% of the costs. Consequently, this government has embarked upon an expansive fiscal policy.
Ergo, there is a big disconnect between the goal and the means to achieve it.
The lurking problem is quite clear. Appeasement and fear produce compromise, and to use our sovereignty as a bargaining chip to develop the West Philippine Sea is at the onset a misnomer and outright capitulation.
Further, subscription to China’s Belt and Road Initiative starkly compromises an independent stand in the dispute and cascades complicated responses. The polarizing effect of compromise to the international and regional community would, in all respects, weaken the capacity of parties in interest to assert their claims.
Lest we forget, the perception of the general Philippine population is another factor that needs to be considered. There is a standing general distrust with regard to China; on the other hand, the level of trust accorded to the US, Japan, and Australia is considerably higher. In this regard, in these disputed waters where “might is right,” the revitalization of the 2017 Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving the United States, Japan, India, and Australia is an imperative.
As for the ASEAN, its continuing relevance amidst this dispute could be demonstrated by asserting the collective sovereignty of member countries, the adherence to international law and a rules-based order, and by avowing the implementation of a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
To celebrate and advance the “right makes right” principle and wave the Philippine flag in the West Philippine Sea, the Stratbase ADRI Institute is holding a forum entitled “Three Years After Our Nation’s Arbitral Victory: An Environmental Crisis.” This will be held on July 12 at the UP Bonifacio Global City.
The half-day affair aims to achieve a two-fold objective. First, the activity is meant to step-up pressure for the government to uphold its national mandate of protecting our territorial integrity against a foreign aggressor and uphold the arbitral award. Second, it ventilates a “whole-of-society” approach in communicating our legitimate claim to the national, regional, and international arenas. Non-state actors, civil society organizations, the academe, the private sector, and every Filipino should take part in advancing our national interests.
And aside from the sovereignty issue that the dispute has galvanized, an equally important front that is at stake is the state of environmental destruction in the area. The environmental and economic security of the South China Sea concerns the welfare and livelihood of millions. Disgustingly, Chinese fishing and military activities have destroyed coral reefs and continue to degrade the marine environment and adversely affect biodiversity.
Toward its fourth year in office, it is high time for the Duterte administration to judiciously balance between national and political interests and between negotiation and capitulation.
While it could be argued that President Duterte has the prerogative of accommodating Chinese expansionism, it could also be well argued that Chinese investments are much less important than our sovereignty; and much less important than the lives of millions of Southeast Asians and their environmental security.
Prof. Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the founder and managing director of the Stratbase group and president of its policy think tank, the Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ADRi).