The appeal that Manila needs to make

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

Julie Bishop, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, landed in Manila last Thursday to make her case for a rules-based international order in the Asia Pacific, prompting an international observer to remark that Bishop “said what Manila needs to, but won’t.” Despite Chinese intransigence over the West Philippine Sea, the Duterte administration has looked the other way, claiming that any attempt to reinforce the international ruling would be futile in the face of Chinese power.


Foreign Minister Bishop refrained from making any direct comment on the current conduct of Philippine foreign policy, noting only that any country – including Australia – would be expected to pursue its national interests. And yet, the rules-based order that she refers to is in all of our interests. All states, large or small, are better served by working within a stable, secure framework of rules when resolving disputes, preventing difficult situations from getting out of hand, and thereby preserving the peace and stability that has allowed Asia to ride a wave of economic growth and development. The order enables the Philippines to assert its rights through anything but force.

The need to protect a rules-based order is even stronger when rising powers begin to test their limits. Even China has benefitted from the protection of this order – its exports protected by the World Trade Organization (WTO), its nationals by the United Nations (UN) and its resolutions, and the sanctity of its rightful borders by other powers’ mutually recognized respect for its sovereignty. China could, of course, enforce its own borders by force – and it has, more than once. But in each case, whether with India in 1971 or with Vietnam in 1979, China spent blood and treasure without achieving the definitive resolutions that would come years later, when the angry memories had passed and a new generation of leaders were ready to play by the rules.


The Philippines must avoid giving China a free pass over its poor neighborliness, at best, and continued assertiveness, at worst. Defeatist attitudes at the top of this country are not solutions – they only fuel the resentment and suspicions that preclude our two countries finding a mutually agreeable and dignified exit option.

If we described our rightful claims in the West Philippine Sea as belonging within our national “home,” the way we respond to continued or future trespassing will spell the difference between letting a burglar pick a series of locks versus simply leaving the front door wide open. Maybe a particularly persistent trespasser would work barge in anyway, but raising criticism, initiating legal action, and sending the patrols that we can would make it a lot more difficult for a burglar to take his spoils and enjoy them.

This is also why Bishop’s message carries so much weight. The Philippines is a relatively small power compared to China, leaving it with fewer cards to play when debating the what to do over Scarborough Shoal and the West Philippine Sea. The legal and moral significance of the Philippine victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague has only thrown the terrible consequences of President Duterte’s defeatism into stark relief. Instead of installing more locks, President Duterte has seemingly decided to throw the country’s doors wide open to maritime predation on our sovereign rights.


It is true that China is bigger, wealthier, and more powerful than the Philippines. But we should not conclude that nothing more can be done and, in so doing, turn our backs on the rules-based order that remains our strongest – if not our only – source of leverage in this long-running dispute. China will keep rising, as is its right. But should it rise to dominate its neighbors? Or should it instead reinforce the rules-based international order that continues to protect it?

In recent days, the South Korean decision to deploy an American missile defense system has fanned the flames of a Chinese backlash against Korean culture and commerce. To many Chinese, the situation in South Korea not only damages their national security, but also calls to mind the deep resentments in China’s past. And yet, despite its angers, the country is not shaping up to be any different from those it criticizes most. As China continues to rise, it needs to be asked and to ask itself what power it will be.

In the long run, China’s response will play a vital role in shaping the future of the region, especially for all of us who live and work here. The better angels of our nature must prevail for our leaders to live up to their responsibilities and steer us safely toward greater growth and prosperity, not just in Beijing, but also in Tokyo, Seoul, Washington, Canberra, and Manila.

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