SO, Marites Vitug has declared President Rodrigo Duterte incompetent in the field of foreign policy. In her article in Rappler (“The year of living with autocracy and incompetence,” June 20, 2017), Vitug wrote that Duterte dismissed “outright peaceful avenues” to urge China to comply with the decision on the arbitral case filed by the Aquino administration against Beijing. Vitug put her faith in the unrealistic and ahistorical foreign policy prescriptions of pundits who recommended strengthening “alliances [with other South China Sea]claimant countries as well as allies to put pressure on China.”
Instead of following the route Vitug and her preferred foreign policy pundits wanted, Duterte took the road of direct bilateral negotiations with China. If Duterte’s choice is a mark of incompetence, then it implies that Vitug et al’s choice must be the hallmark of competence. But is that the case? Vitug didn’t explain why her foreign policy option would have resulted in a better outcome.
Let’s examine what she wanted Duterte to have done: put pressure on China to comply by strengthening alliances with South China Sea claimant countries and our existing allies.
Vietnam and Malaysia are two of these other claimant countries. Vietnam has been engaging in bilateral negotiations on its own disputes with China. In July 2016, during Asean’s regional security meeting in Laos, Le Hoai Trung, Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, said that even though they aren’t discounting other peaceful means of settling their disputes with China, they “attach importance to bilateral negotiations.” Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak also expressed the view that Kuala Lumpur would pursue its interests in the South China Sea “on a bilateral channel and through dialogue” with China.
So, it seems Duterte isn’t the only one preferring bilateral negotiations with China. Are they also incompetent? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s the most efficient track in settling international disputes. As Louis B. Sohn, renowned professor of international law and drafter of the UN Charter, once put it: “It is an axiom of international diplomacy that the most efficient method of settling international disputes is through diplomatic negotiations between the two governments concerned, without any meddling of third parties, other states or international organizations.”
It’s also worth noting that we do have our own territorial disputes with both of these countries, which would make it difficult for these countries to fully commit to our tactic to pursue our own interest in the South China Sea. For example, what would we do if Malaysia uses Sabah as a bargaining chip? It’s not farfetched that Malaysia would get China’s reassurance in recognizing its sovereignty over Sabah in exchange for not supporting the Philippines against China.
Vitug has also not considered the significant shift in domestic politics in Vietnam. Writing for The Diplomat, Nguyen Minh Quang, Can Tho University lecturer on conflict studies, noted that “the pro-Western faction has been in decline since the 12th National Congress held a year ago” (“The resurgence of China-Vietnam ties,” January 25, 2017). Since this change of guards, Nguyen observed that Hanoi has become “more focused on practical strategy than joining any geopolitical ventures.”
The trade relations between China and Malaysia and Vietnam versus our trade relations with them should have also made Vitug rethink her position. The value of our trade with Malaysia and Vietnam is quite dismal. China is the No. 2 export partner and No. 1 important partner of both Vietnam and Malaysia. The Philippines is a very negligible trade partner of both these countries.
Vitug should start reading international history. Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponessian War would be instructive. There she would encounter the conflict between Corcyra and the Corinthians. Just like how Athens decided with whom it would ally between Corcyra and the Corinthians during the Peloponessian War, the other South China Sea claimant states will most probably decide on the basis of their own interests. The Philippines’ appeal to international law and self-righteous morality might be as evocative as the speech of the Corinthians invoking moralpolitik, but as Thucydides wrote, it was Corcyra’s promise of material gains that enticed Athens. The inconvenient truth is: Our moralpolitik is no match for China’s deft use of economic statecraft.
Lastly, the effectiveness of international pressure in this case is doubtful. In my column of May 3, 2017 (“Why Senator Lacson is wrong about the influence of international pressure”), I highlighted Stephen Gent and Megan Shannon’s Bargaining Power and the Arbitration and Adjudication of Territorial Claims (2014), which covered 37 territorial disputes that underwent arbitration and adjudication from 1816 to 2001. Gent and Shannon’s empirical analysis has shown that “when significantly stronger states, in terms of material capabilities, are asked to make greater territorial concessions than their counterparts, compliance is less likely.” What exactly would exempt our conflict with China from following this dynamic?
Also, Vitug must have forgotten that 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.
So, it’s not really Duterte’s incompetence in his handling of the South China Sea issue that was exposed in Vitug’s article but the unicorns and rainbows in her world of make-believe.