By Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit —
Now that the Permanent Court of Arbitration has released its decision on the case lodged by the Philippines against China, Manila should immediately set the tone of what is to follow. In the days ahead, the country should continue to advocate that all states, including China, must abide by the terms of the ruling and that all claimants should avoid any activity that could worsen tensions in the region. It is good that many countries have already indicated their support for the arbitration process and for the peaceful resolution of the disputes.
The Philippines should persist in this message, which is key to maintaining our current level of support and gaining the open backing of more states. Manila’s strong commitment to upholding international law helped it achieve the support it has today: an abrupt about-face would weaken the Philippine message and have friends questioning its resolve. Ultimately, working with others makes Manila best placed to shape the decisions that all claimants make in the near future.
The Philippines has already cast a wide net in getting support for the case and in rallying nations around the importance of upholding international law. In March, the European Union came out in support of the case, urging claimants to resolve disputes peacefully and to pursue their claims in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its arbitration procedures.
In May, the Group of 7 (G7) nations comprised of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States released a statement stressing the importance of states “refraining from unilateral actions which could increase tensions and not using force or coercion in trying to drive their claims.” In June, France said that even European Union nations should contribute to patrolling the South China Sea, in addition to the patrols already being conducted by Japan and by the United States in partnership with the Philippines.
Closer to home, Manila has the support of Japan, Australia, and most Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. Clearly, the Philippines is by no means alone in its efforts.
China has long declared that it will not abide by the ruling, which is in line with its decision not to formally participate in the arbitration. Filipinos should expect demonstrations from China, including possibly more construction work on Scarborough Shoal or declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over the whole of the South China Sea.
Filipino sailors and fishermen could encounter greater harassment at sea. Having succeeded in the ruling, the Philippines is now in a position of strength. Above all, the government should not rush to capitulate to China, but instead remain firm in its commitment to defend Philippine territory and maritime rights in accordance with the constitution. In late June, the United States sent two aircraft carriers into the Philippine Sea to perform drills, in a move that the U.S. military has said is intended to deter other countries from destabilizing activity.
But the next few months could be tense. There is no getting away from the fact that this will be a period that the new Philippine government will have to navigate with extra care. Its next step should be to discuss the situation at the upcoming ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting at the end of July, and for the group to come up with a strong and unified stance highlighting the importance of countries abstaining from coercion. It will also be important for the Southeast Asian claimants to talk about possible paths to the final resolution of the disputes between themselves.
In the long term, the favorable ruling from the court will not be a silver bullet in the disputes in the South China Sea. If there is no violent retribution, the stage will be set for the Philippines and other claimants to talk more closely about how and when to enter negotiations. In the past, some have argued that China will balk from a negotiation process if it feels others are ganging up against it. Through diplomacy, the Philippines can reassure China that all countries will be treated as equal partners in the talks. The government can do this without simultaneously putting the Philippines in a damaging position.
In the long term, cultivating friendly but equal relations with China will be good for the Philippines. Despite the usual uncertainty that occurs when a new government enters power, the Duterte administration is in a good position to continue the fruitful advocacy of the Aquino government while also working to re-establish mutual trust between the Philippines and China. For the benefit of the Philippines and for the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, such an effort should be supported.
Professor Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit is president of the Stratbase Albert Del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies.