Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies
On April 25, the Stratbase ADR Institute (ADRi) hosted a forum entitled “The South China Sea: The Philippines, ASEAN, and their International Partners.” The discussion touched on some of the most urgent areas of foreign policy: geostrategic and military concerns, marine science and international law, and our diplomacy with Southeast Asia, China, and other countries. Above all, in our view, ASEAN leaders must work to stand in unison in support of international law.
The Asean Summit
There can be no discounting the importance of the challenges that stand before Southeast Asia today. This week, as the ASEAN leaders converge in Manila for the 30th ASEAN Summit, the evolving difficulties in the South China Sea will be, unavoidably, in the backdrop. Last week’s report that the Chinese Coast Guard fired shots at Filipino fishermen in the Spratly area, if validated, shows that coercion is alive and well in the South China Sea. These reports highlight how the disputes have taken on new dimensions and complications with time. For this reason, the region’s leaders must move with all the necessary haste to prevent a further deterioration of our shared security.
Confident as we are in the promise of friendly ties, the fruits of cooperation can only be reaped if the parties to the disputes do their share to avoid conduct that escalates tensions. We have an equal responsibility in maintaining the stability of the region: exercising restraint, upholding our commitments to each other and under international law, following the law, and, always, acting in good faith. Through these acts, we promote both development and peace.
United we stand
In addition to working for the overall principle of maintaining peace, many of us also ask about the quality of the peace that is achieved. A peace that comes from silent acquiescence, that reflects only a political desire for friendship and not the strategic protection of our patrimony, is not the peace that we should seek. There is more at stake than simple economic exchange; at stake is the law that responsible countries follow and the overarching system that promotes mutual respect between states. Neither Southeast Asia nor China wants war, and none of us can afford it. War is not on the cards, but if enough people pretend that is, it can be used to rationalize our silence. This is a tragic submission to coercion.
Incidents wherein one nation scares us away from making full use of our sovereign rights and maritime entitlements should be our greatest concern. Coercion is a tactic of pure power relations, the first resort of those who do not have the law on their side. China’s so-called ‘nine-dashed line’, which lacks international legal basis, and that country’s attempts to enforce the nine-dashed line, are the main obstacles to settling the disputes in the South China Sea by peaceful means.
The Future of the Ruling
As the chair of ASEAN in its fiftieth year, the Philippines has a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on Southeast Asia’s most pressing challenges. Nine months after the country’s success at The Hague-based Arbitral Tribunal, the government has taken on the task of working with fellow claimants and ASEAN members to finalize a non-binding framework for the long-awaited Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Thus far, however, the administration has not taken the opportunity to reaffirm the award nor address its significance to the region and the rules-based order that Southeast Asia has benefited from.
When the Arbitral Tribunal handed down its ruling, the award was not made to our administration, it was made to this country and its people. Its benefits span not only the Philippines but to all the claimants, who have shared aspirations and common interests in the uninterrupted use of the sea-lanes for trade, energy, and other activities. The Award is not something to ‘move on’ from; it is something to celebrate and use for the region as a whole. On the matter of the award, no country can stand more firmly than we can. As the chair of ASEAN this year, no country can show more leadership than we do. We must ensure that the Award is not only acknowledged, but integrated in and married with the principles that will be included in the framework Code of Conduct.
As the ASEAN leaders descend on Manila this week, the best that they can give us is a sign of their unity on the future of Southeast Asia. The whole of the region must be united in speaking up about these challenges, not burying our heads in the sand. Our hope is that over the coming weeks and months, the whole of the region can unite in finding a constructive way forward. We should support efforts to settle disputes and accelerate the process for joint projects in non-contentious issues, like safety of navigation and over-flight, marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, maritime search and rescue, and combatting transnational crimes at regional and international forums.
Before we can move into settling the disputes with finality, we must police our conduct in the here and now. The way forward must insist against coercion, unlawful action, militarization, unilateralism, and against a form of diplomacy that undermines the shared interests of our Southeast Asian nations. By enshrining these principles in the Code, we can work towards an encompassing agreement that meets all of our interests in the region.