Multilateral and inclusive cooperation for a rules-based Indo-Pacific

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

The inherent multipolarity of the Indo-Pacific has led to the emergence of complex security challenges that continue to underscore the significance of multilateral and inclusive cooperation among states. Shaped by existing security threats such as gray zone operations, maritime terrorism, and environmental degradation, there is a need for states in the region to have a deeper understanding of the current geopolitical environment in order to collectively advance effective policies and initiatives.

During our latest virtual town hall discussion, organized in partnership with the German Embassy in Manila, these risks were echoed by experts and scholars who also shared and discussed their insights on key areas including maritime security, international law, multilateralism, and security policy. Prof. Rüdiger Wolfrum, a renowned international jurist and a former judge at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, emphasized the disadvantages of acting unilaterally and discussed the importance of multilateralism in dealing with maritime security issues. He also discussed the significance of international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the context of the current situation in the West Philippine Sea.

On the other hand, security experts Dr. Renato De Castro and Dr. Chester Cabalza discussed the importance of the 2016 arbitral ruling, the current challenges being faced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the need to hasten the modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). They also discussed the convergence of strategies and interests of both the European Union and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) in the Indo-Pacific.

At Stratbase ADR Institute, we firmly believe that the future of the Indo-Pacific lies in multilateral and inclusive cooperation among like-minded states including the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, as well as members of the European Union such as Germany. Instead of politicizing the efforts of the international community to promote peace and stability in the region, the development of various Indo-Pacific strategies must be seen as opportunities to create additional channels and platforms for cooperation.

In the West Philippine Sea, China’s aggressive expansionism continue to endanger our country’s national security and territorial integrity. For instance, the most recent incident in Ayungin Shoal of the Kalayaan Island Group was a direct violation of Philippine maritime laws and jurisdiction. According to the Western Command in Palawan, three Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked and water cannoned two Philippine supply boats on Nov. 16, 2021. Though no injuries were reported in the incident, our boats had to abort their supply mission.

We have seen how China has been testing its Southeast Asian neighbors with sporadic acts of intimidation and sustained building of facilities capable of launching military strikes. We have seen how China has sent swarms of their fleets and pillaged our exclusive maritime resources in a systematic cycle of raids and intimidation to strengthen their expansionist claims.

Through acts of aggression like this, China has continued to undermine the country’s sovereignty and threaten the livelihoods of Filipino fishermen. Moreover, it also exhibits China’s refusal to recognize the 2016 arbitral victory and the importance of maintaining a rules-based international order.

In the face of such emerging security challenges, unilateralism will not be an effective solution as it would aggravate and exacerbate the already worsening situation. Instead, the answer lies in the fostering of inclusive and multilateral cooperation. The Philippines must be firm in its commitment to safeguarding its territory by building a stronger and more responsive foreign and security policy. It must leverage and strategize, through existing multilateral alliances and partnerships, a regional mechanism to defend its territorial integrity and contribute to the international effort of promoting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Advancing strategic partnerships is relevant to uphold and protect international laws, treaties, and policies in the preservation of a rules-based maritime order. Upholding the UNCLOS and the 2016 arbitral victory are significant steps toward maintaining this order. A vast network of alliances and the effective implementation and integration of regional policies can also effectively manage dynamic power shifts and various security challenges in the region. It is through these policies that illegal and hostile acts in the West Philippine Sea can be addressed in accordance with the democratic principles that govern the Indo-Pacific region.

The upcoming 2022 national election is an opportunity to elect competent leaders who will remain committed to protecting the country’s national security and sovereign rights. It also a chance to move away from the current administration’s appeasement policy, which encouraged and emboldened China to pursue its expansionist agenda in the West Philippine Sea.

As new and complex security concerns continue to evolve, so does the need for policies and strategies to converge and for states to cooperate to deter any aggressive actions in the region and advance a more peaceful, prosperous, and rules-based Indo-Pacific.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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