IF the South China/West Philippine Sea row between China and the Philippines were to be adjudicated according to the quality of support that each side has marshaled in the dispute, the Philippines would surely win its case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, whose decision will be handed down within weeks.
While our country has won the support of many nations and regional organizations in its determined stand against China’s claim to sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, China has no comparable cheering squad rooting in the stands.
Growing international consensus
The Philippines has lined up on its side the US, Japan, Australia, Britain and others, including respected global bodies like the European Union (EU) and G7. China can count on the support only of Russia, Mauritania, Venezuela and Gambia.
To counter the clear Philippine advantage and growing international consensus on the maritime dispute, China has embarked on a major diplomatic effort to secure the support of nations for its position, using its money as a weapon.
Because there is little support for its claims in Asia, and virtually none in Europe, China has lately been mining support in Africa, which is an ocean away from the disputed waters, reefs and islets.
One recent convert to China’s side is the landlocked African nation of Niger, a strife-ridden, largely desert country of 17 million people.
Other African countries singing the same hymn sheet are Togo, Afghanistan and Burundi.
In some cases, the claimed support has been short-lived. The South Pacific island nation of Fiji and EU member Slovenia both quickly denied Chinese foreign ministry statements that they were backing Beijing. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, there are “over 40 countries that have officially endorsed China’s position” that the issues should be settled through direct negotiations, not in international courts.
China has been impelled to make such announcements, as the country steels itself for what is widely expected to be an unfavorable ruling by the arbitral tribunal this June.
Beijing insists that the court does not have jurisdiction, arguing that any claims to the contrary are politically motivated, and has boycotted the proceedings.
Ashley Townshend, a research fellow of the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, says China is trying to come up with a counter-narrative on the issue to buttress its position.
“By cobbling together a group of nations that share its views, Beijing’s aim is to show that there is a genuine debate over the legality of the Philippines’ legal challenge,” says Townshend.
“It is trying to build a counter-narrative to push back against the mainstream international consensus on maritime law.”
When pressed by Agence France-Presse to provide a list, the foreign ministry in Beijing could not provide a full list of China’s backers on the issue.
Other than its main diplomatic partner Russia, few heavy hitters have come out in support.
China’s neighbors are unnerved by its increasingly assertive behavior and will not express support.
Some Chinese academics understand the situation. Zhu Feng, an international relations expert at Peking University, told AFP: “I don’t really feel that China’s recent public diplomacy activities have been very successful.”
No impact on ruling
The quality or number of each side’s supporters will not impact on The Hague ruling.
The ruling will be determined by the judges. Neither side’s supporters have any bearing on the outcome.
Our advantage consists of the fact that our position is more in congruence with maritime laws and UNCLOS. We have successfully molded an international consensus behind our position.
China’s position is hobbled by the aggressiveness and arbitrariness of its actions in the disputed waters. It unnerves most nations and is regarded as dangerous.
If The Hague tribunal rules, as expected, in favor of the Philippines, it will be a major diplomatic victory for President Aquino and his administration. He will have at least this feather on his cap when he rides into the sunset on June 30.
It will embarrass those Filipinos who, to curry favor with China, have unpatriotically attacked the Philippine position.