Why Senator Lacson is wrong about the influence of international pressure



PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte is now being lambasted for not using the Philippine chairmanship this year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as a megaphone to call out China’s activities in the South China Sea and for not tackling the decision on the arbitration case. Duterte’s approach is in line with Asian diplomatic style that emphasizes dialogue over confrontation. Yet that doesn’t sit well with some who prefer the latter.

Senator Panfilo Lacson released a statement panning Duterte’s skepticism over the “power and influence of international pressure on China.” Lacson said that “studies show that arbitrary rulings are normally defied if not ignored by losing claimants of contested territories, albeit temporarily.” Losing countries, Lacson continued, cave in to international pressure.

Lacson is wrong. Not paying attention to the context of the case is his greatest mistake.

Consent is sacrosanct in international relations built on the principle of equal sovereignty of states. Without its consent, a sovereign state cannot be made to do anything. At the end of consent is the use of force.

Intuitively, it’s quite doubtful that a sovereign state that didn’t consent to an arbitration proceeding would bow to its decision, all the more so if the decision concerns territorial disputes.

Empirically, it has been shown that countries in the same position as China are less likely to comply with arbitration and adjudication decisions. That’s the insight one would get if one reads Bargaining Power and the Arbitration and Adjudication of Territorial Claims (2014) by Stephen Gent and Megan Shannon.

From the database of the Issue Correlates of War (ICOW), Gent and Shannon identified 37 territorial disputes that underwent arbitration and adjudication from 1816 to 2001. Their aim was to find out the consequence of balance of power (measured in terms of material capability) of the disputants to their compliance to international rulings on territorial disputes.

Gent and Shannon’s conclusion should infuse a dose of realism to Lacson: “When significantly stronger states, in terms of material capabilities, are asked to make greater territorial concessions than their counterparts, compliance is less likely.”

Between the Philippines and China, the balance of power leans towards the latter. The arbitral ruling demands so much concession from China. True to the findings of Gent and Shannon, China won’t comply. And contrary to Lacson’s wishful thinking, international pressure won’t really nudge China.

Why is this so?

All states are looking after their own interests. If they are rational, they will pay attention to the strategic context and seek outcomes that aren’t inimical to their interests within the constraints of that context.

Being rational, China will seek an outcome that won’t compromise its interests. If China could achieve it through force, then it would as well do it, even in the face of public censure. Just like any sovereign country, China is a servant to its interests and not to the demands of countries, veiling their interests in the cloth of righteousness.

International courts are just one of the arenas in which states pursue their interests. And courts aren’t usually arenas of power where a win-win outcome for the disputants is likely. As Victor Corpus wrote in his column in this paper (Manila Times, April 20, 2017, the arbitral ruling “was a total win for the Philippines and a total loss for China. But this victory will eventually end up as a ‘zero-sum’ game for us because China will make sure that we do not get a single drop of oil, a single cubic foot of gas, or even a single piece of fish from the disputed area.”

International pressure might be effective but only if the issue is more moral than political. Territorial disputes aren’t moral but political issues. And as Gent and Shannon argued, since these are “political in nature…states are primarily interested in achieving outcomes that protect their own security and economic interests.” Oftentimes, international pressure doesn’t care about accommodating the interests of the target of its indignation. Hence, international pressure is bound to fail in making a country comply with a decision that demands so much concession from it that are inimical to its interests.

Certainly, the Philippines also has its own interests to pursue. However, it must pursue it in the present strategic context, cognizant of the realities of international relations. Shaming China before the world and drumming up international pressure, which the Aquino administration did, hasn’t nudged China to participate in the arbitration proceedings nor halted its activities in the South China Sea in pursuit of its interests. That China could be made to comply with the decision of that proceeding through international pressure is plain wishful thinking.

Lacson and those who share his views should finally come down to earth and realize what must be done. If we want to achieve something in international relations, we either use force or negotiate to reconcile our interests. In his statement, Lacson acknowledged that force should be out of the question. So, what’s left? Barking at China isn’t it.


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  1. Emaper Escamillian on

    If we really see thorougly Aquino admin is not sufficiently​ addressing the issue clearly because having been said that we won the arbitral teretory they don’t pursue the ruling party to let the US stand on our side to let that infrustractor dismantle since they have a huge power of machinery when the Chinese​ started to build????the uS knew what well happened soon the Chinese put up thier they us is trying to trick Filipino and put us into dangion?you know why?that is their strategy to make as Filipino there forlife alipin?simply lang pinasakay ka sa bangka na may malaking butas tinapalan lang per Alam nilang bulok na at Dina tatagal having pumapalaot so kapag nasira si bangka syempre hihingi ka tulong sa kanila Kasi sa kila valing yan sila nakakaalam ng mga pyesa.hay naku pinoy imulat Mona mata mo sa katutuhanan.

  2. Just an opinion of a simple mind:

    US has been our ally or so they say for years, the aids of any kind given by them with strings attached have not in any way made our country improve and develop, economically, militarily whatever. They grant us aid which are candies compared to the aids they give other countries, and we jump in jubilation that our Big Brother takes care of us. They pushed us to bring our case before the PCA invoking the UNCLOS where US is not even a member nor consented to both the PCA and UNCLOS, The move irritated China and arrogantly pursued building infrastructures in the contested West Philippine Sea. The only way to stop them is go to war against them that we cannot afford. The US did nothing to stop them. It does nothing to push China to honor the PCA decision.

    PDU30 employs a different tact, He is not abandoning our claim. He will talk about the ruling at an appropriate time. implements independent foreign policy, befriended China, Russia and Japan. Japan has been helping us. China and Japan will help to implement the infrastructure projects and other programs that are crucial to inclusive economic growth. Russia indicates willingness to help. They have vested interest, of course. But we can set that aside for now while implementing economic development programs that will industrialize the country.

    US is involved in wars in other countries allied to Russia and China. If the wars escalate and we are identified with the US we will be affected unwillingly. With the independent foreign policy we are friends to every one and most likely will not be affected by conflicts of warring countries. We cannot afford to be involved in any war.

    There is tension in Korean Peninsula, North Korea is threatening to destroy the peace in the region. China and Russia are allies of North Korea. Reading between the lines, PDU30’s independent foreign policy is in the right place.

  3. Reuben AdmuKhs on

    Sir V.Corpus, your analysis is superb, but don’t u think a communist-Chinese spy, strategist or webSurfer could also take advantage of our weaker position, of how Filipinos think by reading this & your next piece? The reality is that China’s “flexing its military muscle to show its strength to undermine Taiwan” [as its long-overdue goal for invasion] and caving in to international pressure would just jeopardize its One-China objective. I don’t know if previous administrations have sought advisory teams from Taiwan on how to deal w/ China in international stage, but making such productive move is kinda late since allegiance to PRC has already been declared.

  4. victor n. corpus on

    The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in The Hague on PH territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea is like a double-edged sword. It could be good for us if we use it right; but it could also hurt us if we misuse it. It is best for PH national interest if that sword is kept unsheathed in its scabbard, as it gives the PH a legal basis for its claim and a bargaining hand in negotiating with China. On the other hand, China bases its claim on its history: that China discovered those said islands in 1279 and gave them their Chinese names; and based on international law, the country that made the discovery and gave names had the sovereign rights. Hence, China declare the PCA ruling null and void and is willing to go to war with anyone who would try to enforce said ruling by force – including the US.

    One way to resolve the territorial issue of sovereignty is for both parties to agree to set aside the issue of sovereignty for the time being; with each side holding on to its respective claim so that no one loses face before their respective constituents. Only then can genuine win-win negotiation begin. Hence, the PCA ruling is good for us as it gave us a bargaining chip; but only if it is kept unsheathed in its scabbard. But some of us would like to unsheathe that sword and use it against China. Then the good thing turns into a bad thing for this will scuttle any win-win solution and leave us with no other alternative except war with China. And it this worst-case scenario happens, it will be most unfortunate for both countries and there is meager chance that we and our allies could win.

    This will be the main topic of my next piece for the Manila Times.

    • ricelander on

      “…the PCA ruling is good for us as it gave us a bargaining chip; but only if it is kept unsheathed in its scabbard.”
      Do you mean sheathed instead? Because on the next line, you wrote: “But some of us would like to UNSHEATHE that sword and use it against China.”

    • Paolo Naces on

      So what you are saying sir, is the Aquino administration is right in filing that case?