The shifting geopolitical landscapes impact all nations, both great powers and small developing countries. This development presents wide-ranging challenges and opportunities to policy makers and diplomats. They must exorcise the demons, which usually haunt even carefully planned foreign policy strategy. For the Philippines, the demons reside now in Sabah, in the West Philippine Sea, in the US “Pivot’, and in the house of Philippine diplomacy. Let us deal with Sabah.
After mimetic rhetoric and motions (no movements) on the “Standoff’ which began in February, there is now an eerie silence over the incident. Is this the calm before the storm, or is the Philippines consigning the issue to the backburner.
Philippine response to the “incursion” leans to backburner. A committee was formed to study (again) the Philippine claim to Sabah. Really, there is abundant materials and jurisprudence on the issue. In UN experience, an effective way to kill an it is to create a committee to study a proposal. And if press reports are accurate, the study is not a priority, according to President Aquino.
We must define our policy on Sabah now. To consign it to the backburner is not a policy, it is a mirage, and illusion. For five decades, Sabah has been the proverbial elephant in the room of Philippine-Malaysian relations, an inconvenient issue that both governments pretend not to notice. The result is that crucial political options to resolve the issue were never seriously examined. The urgent task now is to find out what can and what cannot be accomplished on S.bah under present reality, Sabah is too important and issue to be ignored or forgotten.
There was a convergence of failures which attended the standoff. There was a failure of intelligence when Philippine and Malaysian authorities failed to monitor this incursion and appreciate the root causes which led to the incident. There was a failure of statesmanship when both leaders gave priority to domestic concerns (read ejections) over preventing deaths and humanitarian crisis. There is no duty more sacred and more noble for a leader of a country than the protection of lives, property. and rights of its own citizens.
We must pursue our claim to Sabah now and counter Malaysia’s exercise of “‘Effectivitics” over the area. The International Court of Justice awarded the Islands of Sipadan and Ligatan to Malaysia instead of Indonesia because the former’s exercise of more “Effectivities” over the area. It meant that Malaysia exercised sovereignty rights over its island for a long and uninterrupted period by its executive, legislative and quasijudicial goverrunental units. This incursion may have interrupted this exercise by Malaysia of its effectivities over Sabah, but its actions and pronouncements during the standoff were meant to show that they were exercising sovereignty rights. Putting the Sabah issue in the backbumer will further erode our claim and strengthen Malaysia’s.
In the Manila Accord of 1963, the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, recognized the existence of our claim to Sabah and committed to negotiate in an expeditious manner the resolution of the claim through mediation. arbitration. judicial settlement and other peaceful means of the purties choice in accordance with the charter of the United Nations and the Bandung Declaration. The Manila Accord should be the cornerstone of the Philippines pursuits of its claim to Sabah.
It is significant to note the report from the Hague that the ICI on April 30 gave due course to Bolivia’s claim against Chile for “Access to the Sea” based on “Derecho Expectaticio.”
Bolivia cited in it’s application the existence of Chile’s obligation (under UNCLOS), and its non-compliance with the obligation, Bolivia asserts that beyond its general obligation with general international law, Chile has committed itself through agreements, diplomatic practice, and a series of declarations to negotiate access to the area.
Let us exploit the possibility of using this procedure. Any resolution of the Sabah issue must take into consideration not only the legal but its socio-cultural and geopolilical aspects. The Philippines, aside from the legal approach, may take the initiative to work out any viable and workable agreements which will provide strategic space and maximize benefits for the national interest. Let us talk to Malaysia and let us avoid talking in awe or out of fear of our neighbor. Let us exorcise this demon in our diplomatic approach to the issue of Sabah.
Next week we will deal with Philippine demons in the West Philippine Sea.
Amb. Lauro L. Baja is chairman of the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation and former Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador to Brazil, Italy and the United Nations.