(The following is the statement of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs investigation on the Maritime Disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). I am sharing this article because I find the posture and alternative approaches proposed by the UP-based think tank to be appropriate and probably more constructive than the Aquino government’s current tack.
CenPEG’s point is simple – bilateral talks at various levels involving multiple tracks should be pursued to address the many nuances of the dispute. Also, we should not allow ourselves to be used as a pawn by the US in its pursuit of its own agenda in the Asia Pacific. – TC)
Statement for the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives on the Maritime Disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea)
Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG)
March 4, 2014
The Philippine government’s response to the ongoing crisis in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) with China has mainly taken two forms. First, the government has sought to strengthen its military alliance with the United States and its military cooperation with Japan and Australia. Second, the government has submitted its sovereign claims over the disputed islands for arbitration to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
We all seek a peaceful and satisfactory resolution of the crisis. In this light, CenPEG believes that the government responses so far have been shortsighted and counterproductive.
We must not lose sight of the fact that Chinese aggressiveness in asserting its claims over the disputed islands has been provoked by what it sees as an American containment policy towards the rise of China as a major power in the region. This Chinese perception of American strategic interests in the region cannot but be strengthened by the Philippine government’s move to further deepen its long-established military alliance with the U.S. such as the expansion of the so-called rotational presence of American troops and their increasingly uninhibited access to Philippine military facilities and resources.
By all means, we recognize the need to upgrade our antiquated naval and coast guard resources consistent with the economic and defensive needs of our archipelagic country. What we decry are attempts to modernize our military capabilities on the assumption that doing so is the most effective response to the current crisis. Particularly if pursued under the misleading guaranty of a security umbrella under the U.S., such “modernization” efforts can only lead to the escalation of the conflict with China.
The second government response to the crisis hinges on a recourse to international law through the arbitration process in the ITLOS. We recognize the important role that international law can contribute to the resolution of certain disputed issues among states. However, we also realize that major powers have ignored and defied international law when decisions conflict with their perceived national interest.
Let us assume that ITLOS rules in our favor. Will this resolve the conflict? Not necessarily. Not only has China refused to be part of the arbitration process but there is also no way that the decision can be enforced especially since the other party involved is a major power. Thus, an ITLOS decision in our favor may in fact further deepen tensions and ill will between our two countries.
In light of these serious concerns about the appropriateness of current government responses to the crisis, we submit the need to explore alternative options in resolving the crisis.
First, we believe that opening up bilateral talks with China is worth pursuing. The usual objection to this response is that we will always be on the losing side since we will be negotiating with a far more powerful state. Historically, we should note that we have in fact been negotiating bilaterally on a number of issues and have concluded various agreements with China since the formalization of diplomatic ties in the 1970s. If a bilateral negotiation turns out, indeed, to be one-sided we can always back out of the talks.
One advantage of bilateral talks is that it opens up for discussion and negotiation many nuances of a disputed issue that cannot be addressed in a strictly rules-based form of arbitration such as in the ITLOS. Moreover, many sensitive political issues that cannot be openly discussed in a legal arbitration format can be better addressed and threshed out in more informal bilateral talks.
A bilateral negotiations format is also not inconsistent with an ASEAN-based approach to the conflict. Even within the ASEAN, many agreements among member states and with China have typically been concluded through bilateral talks. In fact, we can learn from the fact that other states with competing claims over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) such as Vietnam and Malaysia have in fact managed to pursue more nuanced approaches in their conflict with China, avoiding the escalation and provocation that have marked our responses to the crisis.
Consistent with our position to open up bilateral talks with China, we also believe that we should maximize other alternative opportunities for communication and dialogue. For instance, we have not mobilized the deep ties of our very own Filipino-Chinese community as an alternative channel for dialogue. Moreover, we should also look into the opportunities provided by civil society organizations and NGOs with their own networks of linkages with their counterparts in China.
Finally, we should activate a mechanism of communication and dialogue with China on a Track-2 and Track-3 format that will actively involve not only government officials but the whole network of academics and non-government personalities all desirous of seeing a peaceful and satisfactory resolution of the conflict.
Overall, the guiding principle of our foreign policy must be to work for an enlightened and independent policy for the greater good and that seeks to avoid dangerous entanglements that foreclose and undermine opportunities for good relations especially with our neighbors in the region.
Temario C. Rivera, PhD
Chair, CenPEG Board of Directors;
U.P. Department of Political Science