“A Matter of Perspective!”
Statement and Commentary on the Recent Developments in the South China Sea
Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute
Geography, among others, draws the line that gravitates two or more countries into interaction. This natural force is exponentially intensified by the presence of economic resources and historical arrangements that have stirred both diplomatic relationships and undiplomatic confrontations.
The South China Sea is simultaneously characterized by two overlapping features. First, it concerns one of the most diverse marine bio-systems in the world, which is vital to the livelihood of several millions of individuals associated with fisheries and potential oil resource. As such, there is an interlocking territorial claim between the contiguous countries of Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo, Brunei, Indonesia and Philippines, and China.
Another feature that complicates the interlocking of territorial claims is the geo-political significance of this location to regional and extra-regional forces and powers. We have for instance China and Japan for East Asia and India for South Asia; the U.S. as a western hegemon; and Australia as a party to the emerging QUAD or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Historically and to date, military movements and security dialogues in the area of contention have been a manifestation of the shadow dance of maritime powers surrounding the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The sovereignty of the small state countries in the area was challenged by the incredible pronouncement of China’s “nine-dash line” claim across the South China Sea. This territorial claim was legally challenged by the Philippines to thwart expansionist motives and protect its territorial integrity. The arbitral tribunal constituted under Article 287, Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) at The Hague ruled against China’s doctrine of ‘historic rights,’ “judging it as incompatible with modern international law, particularly the provisions of the UNCLOS”.
Hence, there are no overlapping claims between China and the Philippines. In turn, no claimant state has the right to forbid other claimant states to access marine resources in the area.
Aside from the skirmishes that have transpired between claimant states, what makes the area even more tenuous is the continual construction of Chinese military facilities in the area, the latest of which is the deployment of surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles. Such installation of missile systems is a blatant violation of international law and threatens peace in the region.
As a small country, the Philippines amid this alarming situation should maximize both bilateral and multilateral relations. In its bilateral relations with China, amid loans and promised investments, the Philippines should manifest a belligerent attitude about sovereignty and territorial issues.
The establishment of stronger multilateral and regional relations is also an imperative. Through the ASEAN, the incessant stand toward the provisions of the UNCLOS and the arbitrary ruling on the “nine-dash line” claim should be upheld. The member countries should likewise call for the adoption of a binding Code of Conduct to guide movements in the South China Sea and the strong adherence to international law.
In particular, the small states of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines should strongly forge a collective assertion for their sovereign and territorial rights, where sheer capitulation is never an option.
However, all of the abovementioned challenges boil down to the policy of the Duterte presidency. The foreign policy shift (toward China and the down-playing of relations with traditional allies) is now hitting some nasty curves.
If President Duterte has consistently been nationalistic in many respects, should he stand less resolutely in terms of Philippine territory vis-à-vis China? Neutrality on the tribunal ruling and with no legal challenge, passing the back lodges us into a pure defeatist position.
In light of the latest developments, the pivot to Beijing away from the country’s more traditional allies needs to be revisited while exhausting all available mechanisms for unilateral, if not global, cooperation. These include the revival of the QUAD, an informal security association among the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia; the adoption of a proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea; and working with the UN General Assembly toward a possible consolidation of its members to promote international law and a rule-based international system.
Clearly, our options are not limited to either let the militarization continue unchallenged or risk going to war with China.
It is indeed a matter of perspective—what needs to be done and who will do it. What we need is an instant review of foreign policy, a paradigm shift.
Image Source: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative