By Francis Anthony T. Valentin,
Special Features Writer

THE WEST PHILIPPINE Sea, or South China Sea, is a major trade route, a source of potentially massive oil resources and a home to abundant marine life. It is also the site of the ongoing multiple island and maritime disputes involving China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The latter four are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Small power politics at play in dispute
Philippine fishermen aboard their motorized boats sail along Ulugan Bay, in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, before heading to the facing south China sea. — AFP

Each claimant asserts that it is the rightful owner of a portion of the sea, except China, which insists that it has rights over almost the entirety of the expanse of water, creating a regional row which is likely to go on for the foreseeable future.

These disputes were the subject matter of one of the sessions of the BusinessWorld-PAL ASEAN Regional Forum, held last Nov. 24, in Pasay City. The session featured the discussions of three experts, namely Bonji Ohara, director for policy research at Tokyo Foundation, a Japanese think tank; Dr. Thanh Hai Do, senior fellow at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam; and Victor Andres Manhit, managing director of the advisory firm Stratbase Group.

During his remarks, Mr. Ohara pointed out the economic motive behind China’s aggressive expansion in the West Philippine Sea. The Chinese economy needs to grow so that the governing political group, the Communist Party of China, can maintain a stable rule over the country. If it doesn’t grow, the ensuing societal instability will harm the ruling party’s authority.

The activities of the China in West Philippine Sea can also be interpreted as the country’s challenge to the international order and rules, which, Mr. Ohara noted, have not been fair to Chinese economic development.

Mr. Ohara clarified that every country has the right to challenge the international order and rules — but only by discussion. “The problem is China is using violent means,” he said. And these measures, he added, should not be accepted.

Mr. Hai sees the dynamics of the West Philippine Sea conflicts as a “tragedy of small and medium power politics” in which the rights and legitimate interests of claimants like Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines are disputed. These countries, however, are short of the hard power needed to defend them.

Both Mr. Hai and Mr. Ohara agree that the ASEAN is a good platform for discussing the regional maritime issues. Mr. Hai said that the bloc can help avert the use of force in the waters. But the two experts have reservations. Mr. Ohara, for instance, noted that it’s difficult to get agreement from all the members of the bloc.

Mr. Hai said that there must be direct dialogue among Southeast Asian claimants, and that they should “seek together and work out what their plan is if something happens at sea.” He added, in a question-and-answer portion that followed the talks, that the South China Sea issue should continue to be raised within ASEAN.

In recent years, the Philippines has become the most outspoken critic of China’s belligerent expansion in the contested waters, lodging a high-profile case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, Netherlands, which ultimately decided that China violated the country’s sovereign rights over several portions of the West Philippine Sea, and rejected its expansive claims.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte paid a visit to China last October with the aim of improving the Philippines’ economic ties with the superpower.

In the eyes of Mr. Manhit, this visit represents President Duterte’s giving China a chance to show that it can be a good partner.

However, Mr. Manhit cautioned that “good ties can only be fostered if the Philippines can be confident that China will not escalate its activity in the West Philippine Sea.”

He then reminded the audience of the country’s interests in the disputed sea.

“Economically, we have to remember… that the role of government, aside from defending our maritime rights and defending our territorial integrity, is to ensure that it has sole ability to fully exploit our exclusive economic zone.”

He said, moreover, that the continuing presence of Chinese military installations in certain parts of the sea should be a cause for great concern.

With regard to the victory handed to the Philippines by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Mr. Manhit said, “The Philippines must send, I believe, a continuing message that it values the ruling from the arbitral tribunal, that it will not agree to any resolution that does not abide by the terms of the ruling.”