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