As he ascends the staircase of the palace a couple of months from now and enters his study, the new chief of state will immediately be greeted by important staff memos the most important of which is the file marked foreign affairs will be a brief on the powder keg in the West Philippine Sea and the simmering problem of peace and order in Mindanao, which, unfortunately has been internationalized. In treating these issues, it is hoped that the chief off state will be guided by the spirit of independence and nationalism while discarding the culture servility and mendicancy that has characterized our bilateral relations with our former colonizer. This is only in compliance with the constitutional mandate for the country, to pursue an independent foreign policy, the constitution specifically states that in its relations with other nations that the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest and the right to self-determination.
It is to be noted that in the preservation of the integrity of the archipelago, the constitution ordered that the government must preserve its domain as defined by the Treaty of Paris and historic treaties.
At a time when a neighboring country is nibbling at our national boundaries and a minority group is fighting for the creation of a sub-state, this mandate of the constitution must be taken very seriously by the next tenant of Malacañang.
China has gained significant tactical advantage in the West Philippine Sea with its occupation of reefs and islets claimed by the Philippines in the face of the Obama pivot to Asia which involved the deployment of some 60% of U.S. naval assets in the China Sea.With the construction of structures in these islets China is able to project its defense perimeter deep into the economic zones of the Philippines. Control of the Parcels, a base at Scarborough Shoal and the erection of facilities on Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross which can accommodate a complex of missile sites, fighter jets and surveillance stations will give China de facto control of larger swaths of airspace and water, in the South China Sea. These development has caused much alarm in this country and those of its allies forcing this country to seek international arbitration and strengthen its alliance with the U.S. through the EDCA.
How will stand-off in the China Sea play out?
Our best judgement is that the China having achieved a strategic in the China Sea vis-à-vis the U.S. and its allies will be wary about pushing the envelope farther since this would bring the stand-off to the brink of war which in turn will work against China’s strategy to extend its soft power all over the world.
This soft power is designed to expand Chinese influence in Asia. Its reply to the U.S. pivot to Asia through its “One Belt, One Road” better known as modern day Silk Road network which is intended to “five connections” with the world through trade, infrastructure, investment, capital and people, which in turn will create a community with ‘shared interests, destiny and responsibilities. This is reminiscent of the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere the Japanese invaders tried to market in the last war but a lot more ambitious. With this concept China hopes to diversify exports, contribute to the development of Eurasia, increase access to food and energy, lessen dependence on the U.S. currency and improve relations with developing countries in world affairs. To back up its commitment to the above project, China has poured some $100 billion in the Asian Infrastructure and Development Bank which has now a membership of 57 countries including the Philippines.
The Chinese initiative above can be viewed as an attempt to create trade and economic relations with the Asean community through trade, port and continental land bridges. In brief, China has a much bigger agenda than just playing bully in the South China Sea thereby risking going to war with its smaller neighbors and courting a war with the United States and its allies.
Negotiations with China can cover a range of multi-faceted relations, we enjoy with our neighbor with the end of view forcing the latter to adhere to the rule of law governing the China Sea specifically to accept a code of conduct that insures the freedom of navigation in the disputed area.
Our relations with America in political and economics is ironclad while our relations with China is genetic with a quarter of our population tracing its ancestry to that mainland. If we went through a bloody Fil-American war during the annexation and put that behind U.S. If we have treated our Chinese brothers like second-class citizens in this country and they still maintain the friendship and confidence of our people, I am sure that we can manage the current crisis. If the new government can surmount present disagreement in the looming Asia Pacific century which will surely be dominated by China at least economically, this country will can have a very important supporting role within the Asean+China partnership. This win-win scenario will be the fruit of accommodation rather than appeasement.
Diffusing Post-Arbitral Tension over China Sea Issue.
Given the possibility of this country winning the arbitration case and Chinese rejection of the international court’s decision this country must embark on a campaign to get the nations of the world to press China to at the very least halt its further encroachment into RP territory. This campaign is not expected influence too many nations given that even in Asean its members from the Mekong valley are perceived to be partial to China. This was obvious when the Asean meeting in Pnom Penh failed to support a Philippine resolution on the West Philippine issue. Neither will countries outside the region which have developed significant trade and economic relations with China come to our rescue over an issue that they may not consider to be vital to their national interest. Even the U.S. is not expected to jump into our bandwagon unless the Chinese interdict U.S. vessels and aircraft in the disputed territory.
In the circumstances there is no need to throw the baby with the bathwater. What is called for is realpolitik driven by creative diplomacy. It will be recalled that this was done by this country in the Sabah issue when this was kept in the backburner as the Maphilindo process was adopted.
We will not be alone in this regard. Malaysia despite its SCS claims has engaged China in the OBOR initiative where she is expected to play a major role. Today Malaysia has emerged as China’s third largest partner in Asia. Malaysia also conducted a joint military exercise with China labelled a peace and friendship exercise in 2014. Vietnam despite violent incidents involving both countries has maintained a high level government-to-government and party-to-party contact with China. Japan has established an "unexpected military encounter protocol with China even as she has sent a 3000 delegation of businessmen and politicians to Beijing to mark China-Japan friendship despite close and dangerous encounters of naval assets of both countries in disputed territories.
Despite serious Sino-U.S. differences in both political, security and economic fronts the U.S. has managed to conclude an army-to-army dialogue mechanism to boost U.S.-China military-to-military ties and conduct an annual high-level bilateral mechanism – the strategic and economic dialogue.
For a post-arbitration scenario given the expected intransigence of China there is need for this country to explore possible channels for bilateral as well as multilateral forms of engagement and cooperation with China. The Asean-China free trade area, our membership in the China –led Asian infrastructure and Investment Bank, the Maritime Silk Road initiative dubbed as the one-belt-one road of China and the BIMP—EAGA –China deal are platforms for dialogue and cooperation. As in the case of the Maphilindo the above institutional cooperation could provide win-win solutions for this country and China which might help to diffuse a situation and promote confidence building leading to a satisfactory solution to the West Philippine Sea issue.
The conventional wisdom is that China will exercise soft power rather than territorial imperialism in its desire to exercise dominion ooze the Asia-Pacific. It will veer away from territorial imperialism practiced by the West in the past which was characterized by gunboat diplomacy. It will be recalled that the Spanish and Portuguese armadas allowed them to conquer the globe which they divided in half (we became part of the Spanish half). With the wealth obtained from the industrial revolution Great Britain with its mighty navy allowed Britannia to rule the waves colonizing several continents. At the beginning of the twentieth century the United States with its brand new steel-hulled battleships destroyed the Spanish wooden-hulled men-of-war allowing it to take possession of Spanish colonies in the Americas and this country. In the case of the Philippines the U.S. motive was to build a jump- off point to the rich market of China. In the Second World War Japan’s territorial ambition was motivated by the creation of a South-East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Today China’s soft power approach is to reverse the motto “flag follows trade” into “trade follows flag”. It substitutes gunboat diplomacy for containerized diplomacy imperialism for neocolonialism.
Post Arbitration Scenarios
Assuming R.P. wins arbitration case, the following can be expected:
1. China will not abide by the court decision.
2. R.P. “victory” will be MORAL but PYRRHIC.
3. Pyrrhic because an “aggrieved” China which will lose some face will retaliate symbolically by some economic sanctions e.g. import and credit controls for example, but not serious enough to undermine the ASEAN + China relationship.
4. R.P. cannot and will not enforce court decision.
5. U.S. will not intervene because her economic ties with China for outweigh her partnership with R.P.in this particular case.
6. The U.N. will not intervene as lives are not at stake as in the case of all hotspots like Syria, Iraq, and Africa etc.
7. ASEAN will not support R.P. The “Mekong” group are Chinese vassals while in the Maphilindo, Malaysia has become China’s 3rd biggest trade partner.
8. Europe in too busy fighting ISIS and has no strategic interest in the Asia-Pacific.
9. U.S. and its allies Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia will be sympathetic and will offer to contribute in building a credible defense force of R.P. because this will bolster their China containment policy.
10. RP will try to engage China bilaterally.
“So let us begin anew – remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” - John F. Kennedy