[This is the maiden column by members of the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Association of the Philippines, Inc. Henceforth, this column will appear here every Thursday.]
THE Philippines got its point across when the Permanent Court on Arbitration (Arbitral Tribunal), in The Hague, ruled in its favor. It chose to take the legal path to settle its maritime dispute with China peacefully.
The landmark decision upheld the UNCLOS and deemed that China’s nine-dash line was illegal and without historical justification. China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea—its artificial islands, destruction of the coral seabed, and preventing Filipino fishermen from fishing within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—were likewise declared illegal.
The legal victory supported our position that “right is might.” We gained the legal and moral high ground. We have exclusive right to our EEZ’s resources. The ruling, which is final and executory, effectively prevents hot conflicts from erupting in disputed seas worldwide. It binds the global community, and the 167 signatory states of the UNCLOS are expected to enforce it.
Two questions come to mind:
1. Who will enforce the ruling and how?
2. How should the Philippines work for the best possible outcome and prepare for the worst-case scenario?
China signed the UNCLOS. It is an economic superpower and sits in the powerful Security Council of the United Nations. It wields great economic, financial and political influence worldwide. With the ruling, China has two options: defy or comply. If it defies, it will place itself on a slippery slope to war. If it complies, it will signal its return to peaceful rise.
I read somewhere that, historically, countries adversely affected by arbitral rulings avoided becoming international outlaws 95 percent of the time. The hope is for China to cool off, settle down and comply with the ruling. That’s the silver lining. But because China is showing anger and defiance, dark clouds continue to hover. Tensions are rising in the SCS. War could be triggered by mistake.
China’s declared “indisputable sovereignty” over the SCS as its “core interest” clashes directly with America’s “core interest” to keep the oceans and seas of the world free of any nation’s control. It boils down to China’s national survival versus America’s freedom of navigation. The increasing tempo of naval presence in the SCS by both navies is raising the possibility of an armed clash.
The SCS is one of the world’s busiest trade routes through which more than $5 trillion of maritime trade passes each year from the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China’s “area access and denial” security strategy calls for the expansion of its maritime borders that cover almost the entire SCS to prevent being choked by hostile powers. Its invasive strategy intrudes into the EEZs of five of the Asean members—the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
With economic might comes military might; hence, the People Liberation Army (PLA)’s continuous modernization, particularly its navy (PLAN). It aspires to replace the US in the Indo-SCS-Pacific theater as security guarantor. It aims to dominate the sea lines of communication (SLOC) in the SCS; control the first and second island chains in the Pacific; and project its power to the Indian Ocean.
China considers the SCS its fortress to protect its oil lifeline to the Indian Ocean. Woody Island in the Paracels is the bridgehead of President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” development initiative that includes the Maritime Silk Road. Its artificial islands in the Spratlys aim to protect its nuclear subs at the Yulin naval base in Hainan. China has declared that its struggle for territorial sovereignty and marine rights would not be deterred despite the Tribunal’s adverse ruling.
Its underwater submarine detection network, facilities on Woody Island, and artificial islands in the Spratlys aim to enhance the Chinese navy’s control of the SCS, to include the Bashi Channel north of Batanes, and defend its submarines from all threats. The SCS’s subsurface features shield Chinese subs from satellite detection and provide passageways to break through the US’s first and second island-chain blockades to contain its maritime forces.
A clash at sea between the US and China will draw Japan to the fray. They happen to be our top three trading partners. We will also be drawn in because of the Mutual Defense Treaty. That is the worst-case scenario for everyone. No one wins in a war. Somehow, we will have to get onto center stage; catch everyone’s attention; get them to listen and prevent the sum of all fears from happening. It is to our national interests to help keep the peace for mankind’s long-term survival.
Our legal offensive now extends to diplomacy to get the UN’s Security Council and General Assembly to persuade China to work things out. China cannot afford to be a pariah, facing sanctions at a time when its internal conditions are fractured and unstable. The ball is on China’s court. Turning its back on peace would be counter-productive because enforcement will draw in the free world’s militaries that could trigger a war and spin out of control.
How to approach China is the challenge. We need to consult our internal audiences—China experts, allies, national security community—before we undertake exploratory talks to seek common ground for future talks. The first step is confidence-building that may or may not lead to future negotiations and consensus for mutual gain within the rule of law.
We cannot not engage China. It’s our big, powerful neighbor next door and strategic trading partner. But we must do so smartly, patiently and prudently, guided by our national interests with goodwill to all and malice toward none.
Rafael M. Alunan 3rd chairs the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Association of the Philippines, Inc. (HKSAAPI). He is a former Secretary of the Interior and Local Government in the Ramos Administration.