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A more ‘nuanced’ approach to our China dispute

China’s driving away of two Philippine boats last week is another indication that our territorial dispute with Asia’s emerging superpower will dog us not just for decades, but even, I would think, in the lifetimes of the next generation.

We delude ourselves if we think that the US will use its super-power might to assert our territorial claim. I don’t think the US ever defended a weaker nation’s sovereignty against a more powerful one, except—and that’s a big except—when it is a part of a larger conflict, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars (a proxy war between the US and China), and more recently the Bosnian War, which tested the NATO’s integrity as a force in Europe.

English writer Samuel Johnson pointed out long ago, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” That very well describes President Aquino’s ridiculous, belligerent stand in our dispute with China, represented by his juvenile slogan “What’s ours is ours.”

In his clumsy effort to rouse our “patriotism” against China, Aquino even declared two years ago, obviously confusing a shoal barely above the sea in an uninhabited area contested by several countries with a heavily populated street in the Republic’s capital: “We will defend Recto Bank as if it were Recto Avenue.”

We have a territorial dispute with China, and we are convinced international law backs up our claim. Nobody disputes that.

But that doesn’t mean our foreign policy would be to keep on branding China, the bully in the neighborhood, as Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario has in effect been doing, and then looking with imploring eyes at our backs to check if the Americans are behind us if China overwhelms our islands.

Our territorial dispute with China actually started long ago when the independent Republic was born—in 1946 when President Quirino claimed what he then termed “the Southern Islands” as part of our territory.

Kalayaan garrison
At the height of his regime in the late 1970s, President Marcos built a military garrison with an airstrip in the uninhabited island which the fishing magnate and adventurer Tomas Cloma had “discovered” and claimed for himself, but which the dictator forced him to turn over to his regime.

That is the Pag-Asa island, the biggest of the Kalayaan group of islands, from which we project our 200-mile exclusive economic zone in the Spratlys. Marcos by presidential decree in 1978 also made Pag-Asa a municipality—never mind if its population of about 100 consists mainly of garrison soldiers and their dependents.

When I interviewed then Chinese Ambassador to Manila Fu Ying (now China’s vice foreign minister) back in 1999, she claimed that Marcos took advantage of China’s political chaos because of the “Cultural Revolution” (when Mao ordered his Red Guards to remove “capitalist roaders” in his Party) that practically closed off China from the rest of the world. But then, as one of our foreign affairs officials retorted:

“Precisely, occupation is ownership!”

Legal luminary Estelito Mendoza, who had accompanied Marcos in his talks with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, told me that Deng had a very good insight with regards to our dispute with them. Mendoza told me: “Deng said something like, ‘that problem will be there for decades, but let’s not make it a problem for our friendship.’”

A paper on our dispute with China was submitted to Congress March 4 by the think-tank Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg), consisting of mostly (but not exclusively) UP professors and headed by political scientist Temario Rivera.

The paper explains lucidly the flaws in our government’s approach to our dispute with China. However, no newspaper had an article on the paper. For this reason, I’m publishing it here in its entirety:

The Center’s Paper
The Philippine government’s response to the ongoing crisis in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) with China has mainly taken two forms.

First, the government has sought to strengthen its military alliance with the United States and its military cooperation with Japan and Australia.

Second, the government has submitted its sovereign claims over the disputed islands for arbitration to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

We all seek a peaceful and satisfactory resolution of the crisis. In this light, CenPEG believes that the government responses so far have been shortsighted and counterproductive.

We must not lose sight of the fact that Chinese aggressiveness in asserting its claims over the disputed islands has been provoked by what it sees as an American containment policy towards the rise of China as a major power in the region.

This Chinese perception of American strategic interests in the region cannot but be strengthened by the Philippine government’s move to further deepen its long-established military alliance with the US such as the expansion of the so-called rotational presence of American troops and their increasingly uninhibited access to Philippine military facilities and resources.

By all means, we recognize the need to upgrade our antiquated naval and coast guard resources consistent with the economic and defensive needs of our archipelagic country.

What we decry are attempts to modernize our military capabilities on the assumption that doing so is the most effective response to the current crisis. Particularly if pursued under the misleading guaranty of a security umbrella under the US, such “modernization” efforts can only lead to the escalation of the conflict with China.

The second government response to the crisis hinges on a recourse to international law through the arbitration process in the ITLOS. We recognize the important role that international law can contribute to the resolution of certain disputed issues among states.

However, we also realize that major powers have ignored and defied international law when decisions conflict with their perceived national interest.

Let us assume that ITLOS rules in our favor. Will this resolve the conflict?

Not necessarily. Not only has China refused to be part of the arbitration process but there is also no way that the decision can be enforced especially since the other party involved is a major power.

Thus, an ITLOS decision in our favor may in fact further deepen tensions and ill will between our two countries.

In light of these serious concerns about the appropriateness of current government responses to the crisis, we submit the need to explore alternative options in resolving the crisis.

First, we believe that opening up bilateral talks with China is worth pursuing. The usual objection to this response is that we will always be on the losing side since we will be negotiating with a far more powerful state.

Historically, we should note that we have in fact been negotiating bilaterally on a number of issues and have concluded various agreements with China since the formalization of diplomatic ties in the 1970s.

If a bilateral negotiation turns out, indeed, to be one-sided, we can always back out of the talks.

One advantage of bilateral talks is that it opens up for discussion and negotiation many nuances of a disputed issue that cannot be addressed in a strictly rules-based form of arbitration such as in the ITLOS.

Moreover, many sensitive political issues that cannot be openly discussed in a legal arbitration format can be better addressed and threshed out in more informal bilateral talks.

A bilateral negotiations format is also not inconsistent with an Asean-based approach to the conflict. Even within the Asean, many agreements among member states and with China have typically been concluded through bilateral talks.

Other states
In fact, we can learn from the fact that other states with competing claims over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) such as Vietnam and Malaysia have in fact managed to pursue more nuanced approaches in their conflict with China, avoiding the escalation and provocation that have marked our responses to the crisis.

Consistent with our position to open up bilateral talks with China, we also believe that we should maximize other alternative opportunities for communication and dialogue.

For instance, we have not mobilized the deep ties of our very own Filipino-Chinese community as an alternative channel for dialogue. Moreover, we should also look into the opportunities provided by civil society organizations and NGOs with their own networks of linkages with their counterparts in China.

Finally, we should activate a mechanism of communication and dialogue with China on a Track-2 and Track-3 format that will actively involve not only government officials but the whole network of academics and non-government personalities all desirous of seeing a peaceful and satisfactory resolution of the conflict.

Overall, the guiding principle of our foreign policy must be to work for an enlightened and independent policy for the greater good and that seeks to avoid dangerous entanglements that foreclose and undermine opportunities for good relations especially with our neighbors in the region.