The Philippines’ branding of China as a bully and attempt to maneuver the US into backing our claims has only inflamed China. The US will neither seize nor defend the Spratlys for us, and its position on the interpretation of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) on this issue has been consistent since Kissinger’s interpretation in 1975. Indeed, the treaty was signed two decades before the Philippines first made its claim to the islands; therefore, in the eyes of the US, the Spratlys are not covered in the MDT as part of our sovereign territory and its official position on territorial disputes is neutral, as recently reaffirmed in the US State Department’s Limits in the Seas No. 143 publication.
Lack of bilateral engagement, unnecessarily provocative posturing of the Philippine President and increased military cooperation between the US and the Philippines gave Manila the opportunity to challenge China to prove its power in the Asia-Pacific region vis-à-vis Washington. But in so doing, Manila enabled Beijing to turn its row with the Philippines into a contest that it could win easily. Therefore, it is in the Philippines’ interest to defuse the US-China contest as it relates to the Spratlys and to tone down the nationalistic and aggressive rhetoric, in order to secure peace and maximal strategic dividends. Indeed, under the aggressive approach of President Aquino, Chinese expansion has accelerated, and Filipino fishermen have less access to fishing grounds and suffer increased harassment by Chinese warships.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines have entreated the US to counterbalance the rising power of China in the region, but only the Philippines has cut off bilateral talks. In fact, Vietnam and China undertook increased bilateral talks following the oil rig crisis in order to rebuild the cooperative relationship, though neither side refrains from officially criticizing the other’s actions.
The Philippines must restore high-level dialogue and bilateral talks with China, employing a combination of all levels of engagement, not merely an either/or position of bilateral talks or non-negotiation. This will not amount to a renunciation of our claims or an abandonment of our arbitration case, but, rather, recognition that China’s history shows the requirement of good relations between countries in order to effect border dispute settlements. As even Japan and Vietnam currently maintain high-level dialogue with China, the Philippines is maintaining an unnecessarily extreme position that is only making settlement impossible. Diplomacy and engagement is not an either/or situation of bilateral talks, non-engagement or multilateral engagement. Flexible, pragmatic and long-term foreign policy toward settlement of a dispute that will likely take several decades to complete will require multiple, parallel levels of engagement.
On this, China expert Chito Sta. Romana reminds that Vietnam negotiated for approximately 50 years and Russia for approximately 60 years in order to settle their border disputes with China, and that good political relations were a precondition toward achieving those final settlements. (See Sta. Romana’s interview with Rappler from June 8, 2015 for deeper discussion of these issues.) Even if the case before the ITLOS is decided in the Philippines’ favor and we win by demolishing China’s nine-dash line contention, that will only directly resolve the questions of Recto Bank and Scarborough Shoal, and the territorial dispute will continue on between the Philippines and China, Sta. Romana reminds. Therefore, it is necessary to begin a more realistic, sustained and multivalent dialogue to accompany a longer-term foreign policy vision for the Philippines in defense of our national interests.
On this, Ramses Amer questions the Philippines’ position in his March 2015 report on dispute management for the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies:
“It appears as though the two sides lack bilateral mechanisms to manage and defuse incidents causing tension. In other words, the two parties in practice do not have a dispute management framework or mechanism to implement with regard to their disputes in the South China Sea. Despite this apparent situation, the Philippines claims in its ‘Notification’ that it ‘has complied with the requirements of Article 279 and Article 283(1)’ of the UNCLOS ‘fully and in good faith, and has exhausted possibilities of settlement by negotiations.’ This raises the question how can ‘possibilities of settlement by negotiations’ have been ‘exhausted’ when the two parties involved have failed to even initiate bilateral mechanisms to manage incidents and related tension in recent years? After all, to reach any ‘settlement,’ parties to a dispute have to negotiate.”
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.