A strategic policy proposal for the West Philippine Sea territorial dispute

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While the Philippines seeks a legal resolution to the Spratly Islands dispute, recent history shows a consistent realpolitik strategy on the Chinese side that the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) outcome seems unlikely to meaningfully alter. It is a policy that is assertive but non-confrontational, changing the de facto balance of power non-aggressively so as not to invite outside intervention.

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stance on and treatment of the various overlapping territorial disputes as bilateral affairs, to be negotiated between the PRC and each individual claimant separately, maximizes the PRC’s overall potential gain. Given the lack of enforcement mechanisms attached to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), and the precedent set by the US’s dismissal of international law when at odds with American national interests, there is little to suggest that the PRC will heed the UNCLOS decision if unfavorable.

Following the normative path of a rising power, China is undergoing the transition from a land power primarily concerned with internal affairs to a maritime power with growing concern for its maritime boundaries. This is the same progression that the US followed during its rise to power. The PRC does not see itself as initiating an arms race, but as reconfiguring its strategic interests and streamlining and improving its capabilities in line with its growth.

The Philippines is a US treaty ally, but not a serious priority relative to the rest of the US’s Asia-Pacific allies, and the new defense agreement does not cover the Spratlys. When two journalists specifically questioned Obama on whether the US would defend the Philippines if the territorial dispute with China breaks into armed conflict, Obama stated twice in response: “our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes.” Ultimately, the East China Sea is more important to the US than is the South China Sea. Japan enjoys mutual defense with the US through a security treaty that does include the disputed Senkaku Islands.


If anything, Obama’s side-by-side statements of support for Japan and for the Philippines communicate to the PRC that the Spratlys are the easier near-term target. The unconditional defensive support that Obama gave for Japan contrasts greatly with the weak analogous defensive support he declared for the Philippines. Moreover, strategic thinkers in the PRC may be emboldened to use threats over the Senkakus as a way to force the US to turn a blind eye to Chinese encroachments in the Spratlys. Obama’s ultimately weak show of support for the Philippines—even after the Philippine President’s statements comparing the PRC’s actions to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland—communicate to the PRC that the Philippines’ attempt to enlist American support for our claims and to turn international public opinion in our favor have not worked.

The US will not allow poorer, less strategically important countries to drag the US into war with the PRC when the bilateral Chinese-American relationship is so important to the security of the 21st century and to US economy. Though of course the US seeks implicitly to check China’s growing influence and to defend its allies in the region, Obama declared explicitly on April 28 that what is important to the US with regard to the Spratlys is “freedom of navigation that allows for continued progress and prosperity.” Most major South China Sea shipping routes pass safely west of the Spratlys (with the exception of the Manila-Jakarta route that rounds the coasts of Borneo and Palawan over 150 km east of Mischief Reef). Indeed, ships deliberately avoid the area in their routes due to the area’s shallows, shoals, and poor charting. Given this public statement, if conflict breaks out, the US has an easy exit from involvement due to the non-interruption of shipping and freedom of navigation.

The Philippines’ branding of China as a bully and attempt to maneuver the US into backing our claims has only inflamed the PRC. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have entreated the US to reenter the region to counterbalance the rising power of China, but with the unnecessarily provocative statements by the Philippine President and the increased military cooperation between the US and the Philippines, the Philippines has not only constructed a contest for China to prove its power in the Asia-Pacific region, vis-à-vis the US, but also invited China to use the dispute with the Philippines as the easiest and best win in this contest.

The US will not seize or defend the Spratlys for us, and China’s sensitivity to any seemingly US-inspired plan to “contain China” requires that we avoid any future joint shows of force with the US military in the Spratlys and publicly commit to working through Asean to resolve the dispute. These actions should help remove the stakes for China in the Spratlys in terms of the global power contest with the US, allowing for the contest to be displaced to the Senkakus while Asean pursues a strong diplomatic approach. Toward this, it is also important that the Philippines work bilaterally to build confidence and trust among the Chinese—through state-led exchanges and dialogue as well as through non-state channels.

The potential economic costs to ruptured relations between China and the Philippines are significant, as assessed by Global Source. Philippine-China exports and imports grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 17% between 1999-2013, as compared to 4% for the same period between the Philippines and the rest of the world. Chinese foreign direct investments in the Philippines currently remain low, but the risk is that the rapidly growing figures of Chinese outward investments ($84 billion USD in 2012 invested mostly in Asia) would be directed to other ASEAN countries in such a way that politically isolates the Philippines within ASEAN while also depriving it of potential economic gain.

China holds considerable sway over Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, and at the 2012 Asean meetings in Cambodia this became apparent. When a Cambodian foreign ministry official stated following the November 2012 Asean Summit meeting that Southeast Asian leaders “had decided that they will not internationalize the South China Sea from now on,” President Aquino responded that “The Asean route is not the only route for us.” This crucially delegitimized Asean, exposing the disunity among its members and diminishing its centrality within regional security matters, while simultaneously causing Asean to distrust the Philippines as a diplomatic partner.

Therefore, isolation within Asean is not far-fetched—at least to the extent that China could make it economically unattractive for Asean members to agree to treat the dispute as a multilateral affair. Treating the dispute as a series of bilateral affairs maximizes China’s gain, for which reason the Philippines must convince Asean that regional cohesion against China and the upholding of the UNCLOS is crucial over the long-term for all Asean member states. Indeed, regional cohesion provides the best stable counter-balance to growing Chinese power, rather than a great power contest in Asia between the US and China that invites more not less conflict over the long term.

The Philippines should pursue a unified, multilateral approach through Asean to resolve the Spratly Islands dispute. To this end, the Philippines must convince Asean that it is not merely using the forum to strengthen its own position, as it has done in the past. The Philippines should continue to pursue with Asean and China a binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, while using Asean as a standing, continuous forum for dialogue. To address the historical inefficiency to and roadblocks in the multilateral Asean approach, the Philippines should, as Marlay Ross suggests in an article in Asian Affairs, hold “minilateral” meetings with Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei to aid Asean efforts to resolve the dispute. If the main Asean claimants in the dispute formulate a coherent, unified platform for negotiation, it will move the non-claimant Asean members to agree.

The Philippines should appeal to the PRC’s desire for a leadership role in Asia to both secure peace and maximize the Philippines’ potential economic, security, and territorial gains. However, the desire is not to invite China to be a regional hegemon. The invitation is for China to be a moral leader within the new Pax Asia-Pacifica. This framework salvages Chinese standing vis-à-vis the US in the regional power contest, while providing a premise for the long-term joint development of the natural resources, fisheries, and territory that the Spratly Islands offer. This appeal draws on former President Fidel Ramos’s 2011 suggestion of a transition from the region’s Pax Americana to a comprehensive Pax Asia-Pacifica “based on mutual benefits rather than on the balance of power.”

The Pax Asia-Pacifica should, as President Ramos proposed, be a more comprehensive framework than merely the regional security guaranteed by the Pax Americana. It should be a vision of regionalism that mobilizes “burden-sharing” toward regional harmony and security, but that also involves strong cooperative undertakings, with concomitant institutions through which to diffuse norms and facilitate communication. It is in this context that joint exploration and development of the Spratly Islands resources should take place, and toward this regional goal of joint security, cooperation, and development that the Spratly Islands territorial dispute should be resolved.

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University

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9 Comments

  1. E. Subijano on

    As long as the dispute in the Spratleys are ongoing neither China nor the Philippines will be able to explore and exploit the oil and gas lying there (if there is any). To me this is a blessing indeed !!! And why is that ??? Well, if the Philippine government was able to award exploration and drilling rights in the Spratleys then the only entities who will benefit are the British and American oil companies and not the Filipino people. This had been amply demonstrated in the Malampaya gas field where 90% of the profit goes to Chevron and only 10% to the Philippine government. And then the 10% that goes to the government is stolen by government officials. What a deal !!! Therefore the ongoing dispute is really beneficial to the Filipino people because nobody can steal the oil and gas from them. Not the Chinese, Americans or British !!!

  2. Arhur Keefe on

    I always read this columnists contribution with great interest. She is a formidable thinker and a very clear writer. I happen to agree with her analysis, but even those who do not, should welcome her important contribution to debate.

    • J. Francisco on

      RIGHT ON, Mr. Keefe!

      You are so right on.

      Intelligent discourse is essential.

      And the more enlightened – as well as *enlightening* – the better!

      Hope more comments as well-fitted for this article as yours prevail throughout ALL of the Manila Times’ periodical.

      Substance is key.

      Thank you for being awesome.

      For sure.

  3. J. Francisco on

    Not rubbish.

    Responsible, wise and caring.

    And doable.

    This article is simply necessary.

    And it has already started to fulfill its most important point: opening up the public dialogue.

    Fiercely bright columnist. There’s an incredibly real pulse in this article.

    Brilliant.

    She is a true deep thinker. And deep thinkers are the ones who get significant stuff done in this world.

    Write more!

  4. Migs Doromal on

    The defunct SEATO or South East Asia Treaty Organization created by the South East Asia Collective Defense Treaty or The Manila Pact which was signed in 1954 in Manila, Philippines should be resurrected.

    Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and Australia are definitely going to join this NATO-like security alliance to counter the ever-growing military expansion and aggression of CHINA.

  5. Anima A. Agrava on

    This proposal and the viewpoints expressed by columnist Nicole CuUnjieng is exactly what the Communist Party-ruled People’s Republic of China, but also the Kuomintang-ruled Republic of China on Taiwan. wish the Philippines will adopt.

    It will also China, with all its political, economic and military might, to behave like a normal state dealing with a silenced and chastised Philippines as a “partner” in commercial, exploration and even cultural activities but also silently making its take over of the West Philippine Sea real and complete–until one day even freedom of navigation by the ships of other countries through these sea will be only with the approval of a PRC Bureau.

    It’s a pity that many Filipino writers, like Miss CuUnjieng and former Cabinet member Ricardo Saludo, seem to love echoing the very line found in the PRC’s state-owned and controlled media.

    Anima A. Agrava

    Anima A. Agrava

  6. Um, this is NOT rubbish.

    It’s actually GOLD. And there is a goldmine of virtue and intelligence in this article.

    Because, the Western *PHILIPPINE* SEA territory is awesomely rich in resources.

    This is a matter of China’s greed appealing to that of all the other surrounding/neighboring Southeast Asian countries and China not knowing to mind her own business, and her growing overconfidence that she can abuse her size and capitalize on her threats. China is being a bully. It is plain and simple.

    And this article is treating the problem in not only an intellectually enlightened manner, but terrifically all in good faith.

    I’d urge you to read the article again, but mainly so that this time around, you can avoid doing yourself a very own personal disservice by CHOOSING to activate your conscience AND apply the better version of yourself that is clearly not present in that defeated response of a comment. Because you’re only cheating yourself by missing out on what could be a really great opportunity to HELP a problem.

    Here’s my personal response (independent of any influence from any other outside reactions just yet):
    Does the US essentially ‘have bigger fish to fry’ given China’s automatic global intimidation on top of the Russia-Ukraine divisions crisis and the G7’s (former ‘G8′ officially suspended Russia from its original convention after the country blatantly deviated from Intl’ Law to rudely annex Crimea) ongoing political/economic sparring with world troublemaker Putin? Or, does the POTUS have enough confidence in his previous success with *discreet* peaceful strategies to not have to force any promises out-loud that America’s oldest ally in Asia, the Philippines, will not suffer the loss of her (both logical AND legal/legitimate) right to secure the principal guardianship of the Spratly Islands no matter how much of an agitator and self-righteous bully China has been to a country that is ALREADY in so much need and still stands too vulnerable to not worry about being needlessly and senselessly violated?

    I believe this article provides the answer that both the US wants to hear and would love to see – and that the Philippines simply NEEDS to and ought to DO. Otherwise, I still tend to believe Obama’s cool approach to Syria wherein he did not let the global media’s natural frenzy and even the most rational of multinationally expressed hysteria to pressure him and distract him away from reaching a diplomatic solution, *discreetly,* will be his preferred (and likely) course of action in relation to the Philippines’ current and UNDERSTANDABLE national distress.

    However, ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, it would be her very own saving grace if the Philippines moved in a direction that goes along the same lines as the considerate-natured idea and mature proposal articulated in this article right here.

    Well done, Nicole CuUnjieng! I think the act of being the bigger person is always the wisest and most effective way to find a peaceful state in any dispute.

    I hope many more people follow the spirit of your great example!

    Truly – thank you for informing and turning minds on to something good, thoughtful and right. I know I personally would have otherwise sadly and majorly regretted not being informed and more enlightened about the (totally solvable) conflict back home – and how you are revealing how it is (indeed) totally solvable.

  7. Migs Doromal on

    Rubbish.

    China is building the largest nuclear submarine base on this planet off Hainan island underneath a mountain.

    It is the main reason why it wants control over the South China seas to restrict movement of enemy submarines and deter a future potential US strike from its fleet of nuclear submarines.

    Caught between a battle of two superpowers, the Philippines is just a tiny detail. There isn’t much choice nor options on the table my dear.

    • Rubbish indeed!

      Nicole’s article, while appearing well thought out can be described in one word “appeasement.” This is exactly what China wants. If countries around her acquiesce, China will simply grow more despotic. Beware!