WITH the Philippine delegation to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal having wrapped up its case against China’s encroachment and excessive claims in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), there is a sense of optimism that the panel’s ruling – due sometime in the early part of next year – will be in the Philippines’ favor.
By all accounts, our government’s legal representatives made a strong case, and from the very beginning of the proceedings, China has refused to acknowledge or take part in them, meaning that it has not properly presented any sort of defense of its claims. If the prospects for a resolution in the Philippines’ favor do indeed become a reality, what happens next?
It is a question that President BS Aquino 3rd, who was determined against all good sense to push the maritime dispute to the brink of conflict, seems to have given no thought at all to trying to give an answer, or if so, has taken a wholly unrealistic view of the possible outcomes.
While we share the belief with the rest of the country that a decision finding that China has improperly and aggressively encroached on Philippine territory would be absolutely correct, there is the inescapable reality that neither this country nor any other can compel China to apologize and withdraw from the territories it has annexed, which now includes islands it has built from scratch. Aquino and his uncritical advisers, however, seem to believe that the United States will step in to “defend” the Philippines, or that the United Nations might impose punishing sanctions to compel China to retreat.
Neither of those things has even a remote chance of happening. While the US and its allies have various disagreements with China, these are outweighed many times over by their trade and other economic ties—and dependencies. UN action is also an impossibility. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China can simply veto any suggestion of censure for its actions, even if the rest of the Security Council stands against it, which would likely not be the case. Likewise, action in the UN General Assembly would not prosper, again due to China’s overall productive relationship with most of the rest of the world.
A favorable ruling from the UN arbitration panel will be nothing more than a vote of confidence from the rest of the world that the Philippines is correct in its position, but will have no more teeth than that, which is to say virtually none at all. In fact, that ruling will have one, and only one use: To confer legitimacy on the Philippines’ negotiating position in bilateral discussions with China – something China has offered many times (although with conditions attached that cannot really be accepted as prerequisites, such as recognizing Chinese territorial claims), and something BS Aquino 3rd, who has a habit of letting his mouth write checks his abilities and resources can’t cash, to borrow a popular phrase, should have been pursuing all along.
The reality may not be morally or politically right, and it is certainly not what we would prefer, but that’s why it’s called reality. A lengthy legal ruling is not going to restore our rights to our own seas, though it may make us feel better; only frank, confident, and open-minded discussion with China will accomplish anything to resolve the dilemma.