At the Asean foreign ministers retreat held recently in Bagan, Myanmar, the ministers urged all parties to resolve disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS, called for continued self restraint in the conduct of activities in the South China Sea, undertake full and effective implementation of the DOC, reaffirmed Asean’s Six-Point Principles in the SCS and emphasized the need to expeditiously work early conclusion of the code of conduct in the SCS.
The statement reflects Asean’s perfunctory issuance of old and general statements designed to satisfy every participant, avoid offending anybody and cover differences, impasse and even failure. The talks are often mistaken for action and achievement and life goes on until the next meeting. Lip service has gradually been accepted as the new structure of diplomacy, but the process goes nowhere.
China is the greatest practitioner and beneficiary of lip service diplomacy. The country professes adherence to general principles of international law, freedom of navigation, peaceful settlement of disputes, good neighborliness, which the Western powers welcome and love to hear. While they are bewitched and beguiled China then goes into a calibrated series of exercise of “effectivities” in the SCS e.g nine dash line, increased military spending, occupation and roping of islands, dispatch of aircraft carrier and thousands of Chinese fishing vessels in the SCS occompanied by naval units, issuance of new fishing rules, ADIZ, etc. The parties prejudiced and affected respond with protests, criticisms, and even condemnation of the Chinese actions. But thoughts of substantial bilateral economic relations and strategic partnership creep in and the situation is allowed to normalize while China keeps what she got. Lip service diplomacy brings to mind the rocking chair which goes nowhere no matter how hard one rocks.
The hostage taking and death of eight Hong Kong tourists and injuries to many as the result of the incident continues to fester in Philippine relation with HKSAR . We feel we have done enough to close the incident but Hong Kong insists on a formal apology from the President, and continues to impose sanctions on the Filipinos. There is unfortunate division of opinion among us on whether the President should apologize or not. Recently the Philippine Ambassador Foundation, Inc. ( PAPI) issued a resolution in:
a.) Full support of the Presidents resolute position not to issue formal apology in the manner demanded by the Hong Kong Special Administrative region, whose standing in the community of nations to issue such a demand in any case is at best tenuous. b.) Appeal to the officials of Hongkong Administrative regions to desist from their in moderate call for Pres. Aquino to issue a formal apology, since aside from the steps already taken, the facts plainly confirm that they could not hold the Philippine government legally responsible for the unfortunate incident; c.) And express solidarity with the people in their continued support for the principled position of Pres. Benigno Aquino on the issue.
The US version of lip diplomacy is more subtle and clever and cunning. They support rules, base settlement of disputes in the SCS but takes no or side position on the claims. They are in “pivot” or “rebalancing” in Asia and conduct more military exercises and increased presence in the area but maintain that these moves are not directed to China. They vow to defend Japan when faced with conflict with China on their disputed islands in this East China Sea but too mute to enquiries if they will stand by their commitments to us based on existing agreements when faced with similar conflict to disputed islands in the SCS.
In the recent meeting of the US secretary of State John Kerry and China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, the former was quoted saying. “We are succeeding in finding what we call big ticket items to be constructive” and Wang Yi said China “stands ready to work with the US so that we can truly reflect the principle of non- confrontation , non-conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in all aspects of our relationship.” We should learn to read tea leaves to understand what the words mean. There have been instances where the statements of the PLA had been explained by China’s foreign ministry and those of the US military establishment by the State Department and vise versa.
Engaging china, or even the United States is like playing the video game of Flappy Bird.
Lip service diplomacy is the new challenge which the Philippines faces in international relations. The first step to meet this challenge is to cut unnecessary telegraphing of our positions and what we intend to do. Success in diplomacy is not won though press releases or debates among spokespersons. It comes from positive outcomes resulting from negotiations, which is this essence of diplomacy. If we play tit for tat on SCS with China, We should ensure that our tits will match their tats. The unfortunate “Hitler statements” of President has morphed to this sad situation of a head of state exchanging harsh words and insults with Chinese news agencies and lower level spokespersons.
In the global competition among big powers, developing countries will find themselves toys and pawns. If the Philippines does not approach foreign policy making diplomacy with greater discernment, we will realize that the toys are us.
Ambassador Baja is former Department of Foreign Affairs Senior Undersecretary for Policy and Ambassador to Brazil , Italy and the United Nations in New York.