• West Philippine Sea/Spratlys: If the issue is sovereignty

    Clemencio F. Montesa

    Clemencio F. Montesa

    THE move of the Philippine Government to bring the WPS/Spratlys issue  to a United Nations arbitration process has won wide public support. Our claim is based on universally recognized principles of international law, treaties, conven- tions and geography. We are particularly sure that our stand is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). It is noted that our approach has been received favorably and a Tribunal has been formed and legal experts from various countries have been chosen to compose it.

    It is the hope of the Philipines that it will be able to successfully defend its case in the Tribunal.

    But there are voices that are correcly pointing out that the move will be a waste of time. China has repeatedly said it rejects any third party intervention or internationalization of the WPS/Spratlys issue. Past events proved that on core issues, China stands up to world pressures.

    The main objective of our diplomatic strategy appears to be to win strong support from the international community clinging to the hope world public opinion would have the desired impact on China.

    Indeed it is only in the arbitration process and in the arena of open public discussions that the Philippines can reasonably push forward its rightful stand.There only the power of the law not the might of the military will count.

    Since securing international support is our only realistic hope, we could have prepared for this strategy in a more studied way. The question should be asked as to what could really be wrong about a friendly, well planned bilateral talks with China? Our two countries are not only geographic but also social neighbors. Mother Nature made them to be permanently so. China is very much in us as a country and among Filipinos as a nation.Our political, business, military and even religious leaders have Chinese connections.

    Under this environment bilateral dialogue between friendly neighbors can produce favorable results.In such talks eminent personalities from the government and private, specifically from the business, sectors should be called in. The arguments of both sides can be openly exchanged to the full satisfaction of their citizens and the international community.

    This is public diplomacy. The stakes in the conflict are too dangerously high to be entrusted solely to politicians and militarists.

    Entering into bilateral negotiations should be under one indispensable condition. In case of failure for any reason the whole issue will be brought to the UN for arbitration. China and the Philippines will yield to the jurisdiction of the court and accept and honor whatever decision it will reach.

    If such a scenario develops then the time has come to proceed with the UN route. Again the Philippines is confident of the righteousness of its stand and can expect a fair verdict. In any event the world will appreciate our international law-based approach to the problem.

    Still it is never sure that China will be swayed by world opinion. It has announced that nobody can contain China except China itself.

    In line with the idea of friendly bilaterals the Philippines should deal with China’s declaration that the WPS/Spratlys is “core issue” of sovereignty.

    Upon consultations with the other claimants the Philippines may propose the removal or giving up of rights of sovereignty over their claimed areas. The concept is to turn over national sovereignty to a higher authority—a supranational one.

    Actually, this is not a new invention. Putting up a supranational body vested with exclusive jurisdiction over clearly identified matters has been successfully implemented in western Europe in the 1950s. The situation there that led to the creation of an organization with exclusive supranational powers has interesting similarities with the one now seen in the WPS/Spratlys issue.Both cases involve the same number of countries—six in western Europe: Germany France, Italy,Holland,Belgium, Luxembourg and also six in the WPS/Spratlys case. The root of the conflict is similar: rich underground resources in the areas of conflict: coal and iron in Europe, oil and gas in Asia.

    In western Europe the largest deposits of coal and steel resources are located in the Ruhr/Alsace-Lorraine area where the territorial boundaries overlap between and among the country neighbors. The same situation apparently exists in the Spratlys archipelago.

    Because of the importance of coal and steel in their industrialization and more urgently for security and defence requirements rivalry among the claimant countries for full control of the vital resorces became so intense it exploded into disastrous wars. It is said that all the iron and steel that were welded into tanks,airplanes and warships and other armors of war came from the ‘arsenal of Europe’ which was the Ruhr valley.

    As lesson learned, the six warring neighbors in the 50s decided to end their rivalry and boldly agreed to give up their national sovereignties in favor of a supranational authority that was vested with exclusive jurisdiction over the entire coal and iron products in the area. Thus was born the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) the center of its power vested on the organization’s High Authority. This historic step eliminated the source of conflict and paved the way for the establishment of peace and neighborliness among the Six and accelerated the integration process in Europe. From the ECSC, followed the European Common Market, (ECM), the European Economic Community (EEC), the European Community (EC) and now the Eoropean Union,(EU).

    This is not to say that the supranational formula would also effectively work in the case of the believed oil and gas deposits in the Spratlys, given the obvious differences in the history, culture, politics and national traditions between the west Europeans and their Asian counterparts.It was tough for the Europeans, particularly the French who were practically complaining “after raping us twice you expect us to marry them (the Germans)?

    Under a supranational regime the vast riches in the WPS/Spratlys area will be open for extensive joint cooperation and development.The safety and freedom of navigation in the wide area will be preserved.

    Since all the claimants have announced their commitment to a peacefull non-military solution then all options including the supranational kind, should be seriously explored.Clearly the issue is a “powderkeg”, even the EU thinks so. If mishandled it can explode into a conflagration that could be worse than to what happened in westen Europe.Does this have to take place before Asian claimant countries also learn the same lesson.

    To build the athmosphere conducive to successful peaceful bilaterals the Philippines and China should restrain their public statements because on some occasions, taken by media out of context, such outbursts deliver wrong messages to the public.

    To avoid unnecessary suspicions and to develop trust, the Philippines should be cool and diplomatic in the current negotiations with the US for an increased or expanded rotational presence of American troops in the country.Since this is being worked out as the WPS/Spratlys issue continues to boil and in light of the much heralded US pivot to Asia,China can find sufficient reasons to view this as provocative.

    If the only objective of the IRP is to allow the US military increased presence in our country on a rotational program, is this not already provided for in the Visiting Forces Agreement? All activities to be undertaken under it are required to have the prior approval of the Philippine Government. Such approval could cover the specific duration, the frequencies of rotation, the exact number of American personnel and the exact description and size of the military hardware to be used in the authorized activity. China did not show any unfriendly interest in the VFA because it was just one of the hundred of Status of Forces Agreements that the US has entered into.

    If the government is sure about reviewing our military alliance with the US then the clamor that should be answered is the call for an improvement, in line with Philippine national inerests, in the Agreement’s provisions pertaining to these two specific concerns:Philippine custody over the offender and precise meaning, as to specific duration, of “visiting”.In view of the unhappy Smith experience and considering that the US is now eagerly seeking base and logistical support for its much heralded Asia pivot, the Philippines may now enjoy a favorable negotiating position.

    The challenge now for Philippine diplomacy is to summon the boldness and confidence to accept China’s invitation to a bilateral dialogue on the WPS/Spratlys issue subject to the specific condition mentioned above.

    That will end the Crisis? Probably not but durable peace in a strategic corner of the world may have been established.

    Note: Ambassador Montesa, now retired,headed the Philipine Mission to the EU and the Embassies in Mexico, Belgium and Luxembourg. He is Board Member of the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation.


    Please follow our commenting guidelines.


    1. Just a little leery about China. I feel it’s too risky to have China as strategic partner. I was shocked when I read one of their old adage saying: “Sometimes you have to kill a chicken to frighten the monkeys.” It was illustrative of their approach: China would coerce and make example out of their neighbors, internal dissenters, and internal independent movements (such as the Tibetan and Uighur efforts) for the purpose of bringing others into line.

      Entering into a bilateral negotiations with China is doable and probably a good option. If we chose to do it, it is only my fervent hope that we go against building permanent alliance that will restrict our flexibility in the future.

      Great Article from Mr. Montesa!


    2. for the first time i read a sensible opinion regarding south china sea issue. it all boils down on how ph leaders can handle the intricate weaves of geopolitics around, especially between china and the usa. is the present occupant of malacanang has a wherewithal to handle this? i doubt it. i wish the depth of the wound may not reach the uncurable end. china is just stone throw from us since time immemorial. usa will not put his finger on anything without anything in return. ph is just a collection of mounds in between them. when they clash, god forbid, ph will be the next bikini island in the making.

    3. I think China is feeling the pressure that is why Mr. Xi went on his charm offensive to talk to the leaders of some selected Asian countries in an attempt to soften their cohesion and their unity, by means of economic aid, and investment to gain their alliance against the USA. If Mr. Xi wants to become the big brother for the Asian people, he must recognize the territorial integrity of its neighbors based on UNCLOS and must correct China’s 9 dash line. ASEAN must remain independent and must act as one to be strong and an effective organization, immune to predatory countries.

    4. The only way to claim our island is to fight for it. Peacefully or through war. We as a nation should be ready for this eventuality. We can’t rely on US alone. They are also weak in their current position as they owe China 1 trillion in debt. PH might be use as collateral by the US. Sounds funny but it can happen.

    5. This sounds like a doable solution. If I might add my 2 cents worth, if we need to do a bilateral talk with China, let us walk slowly and carry a big stick (US military might on our side), because there is no way that you can negotiate a favorable solution if you are negotiating from a very weak stand point, and that is what our position is at this time. Once we have the US backing, then we can start negotiating and like Ronald Reagan said “trust but verify”.