Mr. President, we can make an explosion

Edwin Santiago, Executive Director of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Our situation in the South China Sea evokes an image of a child who gets his pants pulled down on the playground at lunchtime. This is normally followed by physical harm such as repeated hitting, kicking, pushing, and the like. And, to make the physical intimidation more credible, the bullies usually outnumber the victim, and more often than not, have a visible physical advantage.

In such cases, what are the options available to the boy? Starting with the obvious: the victim, at that particular point, may put up a fight, give in, or flee. Given the odds, fighting may be a losing proposition. But it can also send a clear message to the bullies that he will never take the bullying sitting down. He may even be lucky enough to land a punch and hurt his adversaries. When this happens, obviously the consequences for the victim would be dire.

The victim may also decide to give in and spare himself the additional pain that could be inflicted on him if he challenges the bullies. This scenario emboldens the bullies and gives them more encouragement to continue the mistreatment.

Finally, the boy may attempt to flee the scene and have a stay of execution. Sooner or later, however, the inevitable may happen, and when it does — like hunters deprived of their prey — the appetite of the bullies to harm is more vicious and aggressive.

But in the morning after, the matter can be reported to the authorities, either by the victim or by his parents. However, telling an authority figure about bullying is regarded as the most common failed solution. From most accounts of bullying, the authorities are limited to just telling off the bullies that what they are doing is wrong and has no place in the school. Following the state of mind of the bullies, this scenario may only result in more negative consequences for the victim — this time, for being a snitch.

A lot of victims swear by the effectiveness of the talking to the bullies — engaging them in a candid and personal conversation. Having a sincere dialogue between the bullies and the victims gives them an opportunity to deal with their differences in a more rational way.

However, should the Philippines consider this as a case of Chinese bullying? Expert sources say that for a behavior to be considered as bullying, there must be hostile intent, imbalance of power, repetition, distress, and provocation.

Except for their apologists, the Chinese seem to tick all the boxes in determining whether bullying actually exists. The heavy presence of their military and continuing build-up of military facilities in the area all the more emphasizes their hostile intentions. Every now and then, Filipino fishermen are harassed by the Chinese navy for their presence in the disputed territories. Recently, Chinese vessels were seen harvesting giant clams in the Scarborough Shoal, clearly taunting the Philippine military and our fishermen of the obvious imbalance of power, coupled with the repetitive and provocative nature of these incursions.

Should the Philippines put up a fight, give in, or flee? Should we tell on the Chinese to the authorities or Uncle Sam? Or, should we engage them in a sincere dialogue?

In January 2013, we told the authorities about what was happening. Following a tense standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships, the Philippines filed its case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). The PCA said that there was no legal basis for the so-called nine-dash-line insisted on by China and that it violated Philippine sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by (a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, (b) constructing artificial islands and (c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone.

Since then, President Duterte, has been vacillating on what to do with the ruling and how to deal with China. By and large, it appears that he wants to be friends with China and then live happily ever after. But Gregory Poling, Executive Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, is sounding the alarm: “The fish are going to be dead pretty soon. And the Philippines is not going to be handcuffed to an ASEAN-China code of conduct process with some indefinite end date that may or may not touch on these issues.”

His prescription is for the Philippines to work side by side with other claimant countries to forge a deal with China regarding fisheries management — not really to settle the territorial dispute. Poling’s approach is directed at saving the resources of the area, without having to push China and its might into doing something worse than what it is already doing. The Philippines, Vietnam, and China may agree on declaring certain areas as protected zones for coral reefs and shoals and limit fishing in other areas.

There seems to be a lot of wisdom in Poling’s prescription. Why go on a one-on-one, all-out conflict with China when the power imbalance is so pronounced? China may just stonewall all efforts to force it to behave like an outstanding global citizen. Poling further suggests that the Philippines should have sanctioned the Chinese companies who have supported paramilitary forces in the Spratlys. At the very least, he says, we should be banning them from operations.

Our biggest obstacle may be the eagerness of President Duterte to throw in the towel and concede to China. He has led many to believe that it is in our best interest to just kowtow to Beijing and to Xi Jinping. As it turns out, we are not that helpless. We may just need to believe that there is something more to be done. We may just need to light the match and put international pressure on China.

As cliché as it sounds, Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” may as well be our rallying cry. It goes:

Like a small boat
On the ocean
Sending big waves
Into motion
I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion


This article was originally published in BusinessWorld. Image courtesy of CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar/Vulcan Technologies.

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