Cognitive Dissonance, False Dichotomies, and the West Philippine Sea

Ren de los Santos, Resident Fellow for Global Politics of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Over the past few days, a lot has been said regarding the 3rd anniversary of the Hague ruling favoring the Philippines in its stance against China on the West Philippine Sea dispute. Three years ago, it was a highly celebrated victory headed by former Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario and then Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. The ruling was considered by many as a marquee case that reinforced the salience of international law as a diplomatic equalizer between state actors; primarily pitting a small island state against an international power and eventually winning versus a seemingly “formidable” adversary. Nonetheless, it was the poster child for the efficacy of non-lethal avenues in settling conflicts between nation-states.

The decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was the rallying point that should have been used as primary leverage in solidifying and galvanizing our position in the region, while having the opportunity to unite in a common front with other neighboring states that are also affected by China’s expansionist push to impose its “nine-dash line.” Three years later, however, the reality couldn’t be farther than the ideal scenario.

Articles, radio commentaries, and vignettes of a bygone victory reminded the public of what could have and should have been, and endless “what ifs.” Three years into the Duterte administration, the momentum that was created following the ruling was essentially squandered, replaced by an appeasement strategy with the promise of infrastructure development, an influx of investments, and a seemingly bottomless line of credit as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.


Last Friday, July 12, Social Weather Station (SWS) president Mahar Mangahas presented survey results on the public’s opinion on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue. The survey was conducted from June 22-26, with a 1,200-sample size, and an error margin of plus-minus 3%.

The findings reveal a strong popular sentiment against China in the WPS issue among Filipinos. A resounding 93% indicated the importance of regaining control of the islands in the WPS, and 89% felt that it is wrong to be apathetic and do nothing about the Chinese infrastructure on the islands. In addition, 92% want the country to bolster its military capability, in particular the navy. Clearly, Filipinos agree on the importance of the WPS issue and want to see a more resolute stance to oppose the Chinese narrative, with a military deterrence option within the realm of possible actions.

Other avenues that the public are open to are multilateral ties. Eighty-four percent (84%) agree with enhancing political clout by forming alliances with other countries. This action can be done by aligning with other claimant states, namely, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia; by bolstering the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States; or holding freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) via joint patrols in the WPS.

Eighty-three percent (83%) also agree with bringing the case to international organizations, namely, the UN and the ASEAN, as a platform for negotiations. The reactions may be offshoots of numerous reports beginning in 2016 of violent acts committed by the Chinese Coast Guard against Filipino fisherfolk, including the recent Reed Bank incident. Public backlash is also apparent against illegal fishing activities by Chinese fishermen, with 87% wanting the Philippine government to arrest and prosecute erring Chinese fishermen.


What is baffling about the findings, however, are two numbers: 87% believe that the Philippine government should assert its right on the islands in the WPS even as 71% believe that the government is serious in protecting Filipino fisherfolk in the WPS.

There could be a form of cognitive dissonance amongst the public here. Public perception regarding the government still remains largely positive despite the three years of inaction, passivity, and over-all lack of political will from the administration to protect the national interest and the constitutional mandate to defend our territory.

Public perception in this instance is a direct result of the unclear foreign policy gravitas the current government is exhibiting, contrary to its much-vaunted foreign policy pivot branded as “independent.” Though doubts are cast and more questions than answers surface, the only clear stance from the government is its preference to align with its new ally, China.

President Duterte and other officials have pushed various statements that warn of possible war if the Philippines were to keep its stance in the WPS. The false dichotomy between lopsided exploitation sugarcoated as peace, and absolute destruction with the threat of war is thrown around to keep the public in check. By taking away its self-reliance and pride, the public’s will to defend itself festers from the inside as the foundations of national interest rot and will inevitably buckle, not from the weight brought by an external adversary but the enemy within.



This article was originally published in BusinessWorld. Image Source: Jun Dumaguing, ABS-CBN News.

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