Circumventing international law with hybrid warfare

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Four years ago, the Philippines won its landmark case against China when the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) invalidated the latter’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea. The tribunal determined that there was no legal basis for China’s historic rights to resources within the disputed maritime zone and such violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines.

Although China did not acknowledge the ruling, several countries including the Group of 7 nations (G7) supported the decision. In a joint statement, the G7 — composed of the United States, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and the United Kingdom — accorded the decision as a significant milestone and a useful basis for a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. Australia and most of the ASEAN countries declared their support as well.

As I have mentioned in my past commentaries, the arbitral award should have been the country’s leverage to hold China accountable for its actions in the South China Sea in accordance with international law. Unfortunately, the Duterte administration’s continued tolerance of the aggression and failure to assert the country’s claims in the disputed territorial waters allowed China to pursue its military ambitions and operations with impunity. It has repeatedly pushed forward the narrative that smaller powers cannot compete with major powers like China. This defeatist policy, along with the government’s policy of appeasement toward China, have greatly affected the country’s long-term strategic and economic interests.

Over the past few years, China has built installations to accommodate larger military defense facilities in the South China Sea. With the lack of direct regional engagement from the United States and its allies including the Philippines, China exploited the ambiguous legal status of islands and reefs in the disputed territorial waters and consolidated its gains and further strengthened its position.

More so, China pervaded the region’s political, economic, and civil spaces through the careful execution of its hybrid warfare. This strategy, for instance, was actively utilized during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak when it positioned itself as the frontrunner in fighting the pandemic while continuously ramping up its expansionist activities in the South China Sea.

China’s hybrid warfare can be understood as the comprehensive use of strategies not normally associated with war to engage in coercive posturing. This posturing involves the display of military and non-military forces, economic coercion through corrosive investments, information warfare through aggressive propaganda campaigns, and the advancement of spurious jurisdictional claims. The calculated placement of these strategies collectively helps China to set the stage for achieving larger strategic ambitions while circumventing international law and undermining the regional balance of power.

Given the rapidly changing security environment and the complexities of China’s hybrid warfare, it is in this broader context where the Philippine government must comprehend the legitimate threats to our national security and the incidents of persistent incursions in our country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Moreover, the Philippines must abandon its defeatist policy and forge alliances with like-minded states to uphold the integrity of a rules-based international order and oppose any unilateral actions that might disrupt the status quo and increase tensions in the region. Coordinating with ASEAN states and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Plus 2 (Quad Plus), which includes key member states such as Australia, Japan, and India, is a favorable step towards this direction.

Asserting our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea has consistently been the consensus of the great majority of the Filipino people repeatedly proven by many national surveys. The latest data from the July 3-6 National mobile phone survey of the Social Weather Stations revealed that “seven out of 10 agree that the Philippine Government should assert its rights over the islands in the West Philippine Sea” and “eight out of 10 agree that the Philippines should form alliances with other countries that are ready to help defend its rights in the West Philippine Sea.”

The findings also show that 56% of Filipinos have little trust in China compared to 21% that have much trust. The lowest since the start of the Duterte administration.

The acquiescent posture that this administration insisted on taking played well into Beijing’s cabbage tactics, resulting in a level of Chinese militarization that now threatens the stability of the region which is still struggling to survive the pandemic. An unprecedented global health and economic crisis that again started from China.

As we commemorate the fourth anniversary of our country’s arbitral victory, we must not forget that it is the legal and moral obligation of the Philippines to uphold its sovereign and territorial rights under the 2016 PCA ruling. By working towards its full and effective implementation, we can pave the way for the peaceful resolution of disputes in the region and at the same time contribute to the preservation of a rules-based order.



This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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