What ‘disputed waters?’

Atty. Katrina Clemente-Lua, Executive Director of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Just last week, May 6, Vice-President Leni Robredo issued a statement on China’s installation of missile systems in the West Philippine Sea. It is quite refreshing to have a top government official issue a statement that urges the administration to take immediate and appropriate actions that take into account international laws.


Not surprisingly, the VP’s Statement was picked up well by media. What was surprising though was the consistent use by media (and commentators) of the term “disputed waters.” It remains a puzzle why the term “disputed waters” is continuously being used to describe the West Philippine Sea. Filipinos ought to be reminded that the Philippines scored a victory when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on the South China Sea arbitration. The Tribunal declared China’s nine-dash line claim as unlawful. Verily, this would have settled the issues on maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.

Yet, to the pleasure and satisfaction of China, even government officials tend to refer to the waters as ‘disputed.’ Disputes simply mean that they are not yet resolved. With the Arbitral Ruling, any dispute on the South China Sea between China and the Philippines is deemed resolved.

As appropriately and accurately stated by VP Robredo, there is a need “to protect what is rightfully owned by the Filipino people, in line with the ruling of the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal.” Instead of looking at the VP’s statement as a political move, it is high time that we treat the issue in a context that would be beneficial for all. The only dispute that remains to be solved is how China can be convinced to fully accept a decision that is not in its favor.

Observance of the rule of law fosters predictability and security. Applying the Arbitral Ruling, the award should have served as basis for a permanent resolution of China’s baseless claims and militarization of the West Philippine Sea.


China, however, seems to have shrugged off the Arbitral Ruling.

It continues to test the waters by building permanent structures on places that it is not supposed to and at the same time anticipating the consequences to be imposed by state actors.

As there seems to be none, it has continued to exercise its imperialism in the West Philippine Sea and even in the East China Sea, where China has also taken provocative actions. These developments led to the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, members of which share the same security interests in maritime security that extends from East Asia to Indian Ocean, which was the premise for the use of the geostrategic term “Indo-Pacific.” Consequently, China is seen as a precedented security threat and challenge in the Indo-Pacific Region.


A two-pronged approach may be undertaken to achieve maritime and regional security vis-à-vis the maritime commons in the Indo-Pacific: a diplomatic approach and a multilateral approach by engaging not only our allies but the other states in the Indo-Pacific Region.

While the revival of the Quad will benefit the Philippines, it has implications on contemporary Philippine foreign policy.

In a recent Special Study published by the Stratbase ADR Institute entitled “The Revival of the Quad and the Emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the 21st Century Geopolitical Region,” Dr. Renato de Castro has advanced three implications that ought to be considered by the Duterte administration.

First, the revival of the Quad and the expansion of the geopolitical competition between its members and China will exert tremendous strategic and diplomatic pressure on ASEAN that might effectively weaken its ability to play a central role in regional security. As such, it might also divide its membership between those who will support China and those who will side with the Quad.

Second, it will serve as a constraint on the Philippines’ tendency to tilt closer to China, as the Philippines has close economic and security relations with the three members of the Quad. If these members view the Philippines’ appeasement policy on China as something that undermines regional balance of power and interests, these Quad members might collectively restrain the Philippines by exercising their diplomatic, strategic, and economic clout.

Lastly, the revival of the Quad would serve as a viable tool for a renewed equi-balancing gambit. Accordingly, fostering closer economic and diplomatic relations with the members of the Quad could provide a viable alternative to a policy of appeasement on China.

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