Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 20 July 2016


Territorial issues over the West Philippine Sea – part of the larger South China Sea – dominated the topic of our national concerns last week.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the South China Sea. In 2013, the Philippines filed a case against China concerning territorial encroachments and other issues, including the legality of China’s 9-dash line claim over the South China Sea.

The case was filed under the arbitration provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China refused to participate in the arbitration on the ground that the arbitration panel had no jurisdiction over the case.

The arbitration tribunal, however, decided that it did.

Last week (July 16), the tribunal announced its findings which ruled in favor of the Philippines on the matter of territorial disputes and declared that China has no historical rights based on the 9-dash line map. It further ruled Chinese reclamation activities have caused irreparable damage to the environment and asked China to stop further activities. China rejected the ruling.

The decision sustained most of the points argued by the Philippines against China. Though the case pertained to a specific Philippine grievance, the Tribunal’s decision has wide implications on the future disposition of resource exploitations among claimants in the whole of the South China Sea.

Economic resources at stake. The economic resources involved for us are enormous, yet undefined since such resources are still to be fully discovered and accounted for. Since sovereign control over resources are for all time, their immediate future value for the nation cannot be fully fathomed.

There are obvious resources of value. Fisheries and other marine resources have been continuously tapped over the years producing livelihood for Filipino fishing activities.

The importance of the whole region of the South China Sea came to fuller consciousness especially after the energy crisis of the 1970s. Energy exploration in the region has intensified since that time.

The Philippine islands are highly mineralized. From this information comes the obvious conclusion that the surrounding seas must contain some trace of those resource endowments. In the future, improvements in the technology of exploration and the rising prices of minerals would make such activities more attractive.

Specifically, energy exploration undertakings and economic discoveries have been made. Since the 1970s, many exploration areas have been delineated for resources to be discovered. Petroleum and gas have been found in the offshore areas .To date, the Malampaya fields in the offshores of Palawan have provided major energy resources tapped for electricity generation.

Big power behavior. Big powers act on their own interests and often insist on their rights at the expense of weaker nations. In the matter of our claims to the resources of our offshore and economic zones, conflicting claims with those of China have led to tense developments.

In the course of the last four decades, the might and economic power of China has risen many times. Since its rapid growth in the last few decades, the “paper tiger” image no longer applies. It has enormous power relative to the other party that has won the argument before the court.

China refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the arbitration panel and has rejected its findings.

By refusing to budge from its stance of sovereignty over the disputed area, it is not possible for the winner of the case to realize the resulting benefits of its victory.

It is suicidal for the Philippines to enforce the findings on China unilaterally. The avenue for us is to seek negotiation, persuasion, friendship without surrender of basic tenets. Emphasizing a broader set of intricate relations that could yield beneficial outcomes at large, perhaps it is possible to advance Philippine-China forward beneficially.

Strategic interests: Philippines and China. Yet, both China and our country are engaged in many areas of economic exchange and cooperation that could advance mutual and strategic interests critical to both nations. The scope of action is broad enough for as long as the territorial disagreements are not put on the front burner so that they consume both sides in unhealthy recriminations.

The possibilities are open in exploring further areas of trade, finance, and mutual cooperation so that no worsening of relations result.

It should be noted that China has difficult territorial disputes with Russia and Vietnam. Yet it has managed to foster strong economic relations with both countries. At present  the ownership of Senkaku islands has increased tension in China’s relations with Japan, but strong economic ties remain between them.

Likewise, President Duterte’s move to ask former President Fidel Ramos, a well-known friend in China, to lead talks with that country could produce positive outcomes. In order for this to succeed, former President Ramos should be empowered with support staff from those who helped win the Philippine case in the arbitral proceedings.

ASEAN collective action? For years, ASEAN has suggested the need for a Code of Conduct in the disposition and use of resources within the South China Sea. Four major ASEAN countries – the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam – have a territorial claim on the area. Yet no collective action has been contemplated within the grouping.

With judgment having been rendered on the South China Sea claims, the individual claims of each of the countries might have been also strengthened. Perhaps this opens a way for ASEAN to move toward a collective approach to the problem with China.

Such a solution could evolve in the future. It appears unlikely to happen while the whole ASEAN is itself divided on the accommodations with China.

International card: freedom of navigation. The Tribunal puts China’s territorial claims null and void in the eyes of international law. This angers China.

The 9-dash line claim has lost clout. It is less feasible for China to move toward an aggressive application of her claims against international shipping and airline routes as part of its domestic space in what it considers its own internal sea. The South China Sea, however, has been an open sea where a substantial part of world commerce passes through.

Should China pursue this course of action, it is bound to raise tensions in the region. US military power could present a major test egged on by other nations with a stake in the fate of commerce affecting the whole East Asian region.

This could help us find another means toward finding a practical solution in further easing tensions, for it could provoke stalemate or an effort to solve it directly.