Commentary: Why Senator Lacson is wrong about the influence of international pressure

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte is now being lambasted for not using the Philippine chairmanship this year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as a megaphone to call out China’s activities in the South China Sea and for not tackling the decision on the arbitration case. Duterte’s approach is in line with Asian diplomatic style that emphasizes dialogue over confrontation. Yet that doesn’t sit well with some who prefer the latter.

Senator Panfilo Lacson released a statement panning Duterte’s skepticism over the “power and influence of international pressure on China.” Lacson said that “studies show that arbitrary rulings are normally defied if not ignored by losing claimants of contested territories, albeit temporarily.” Losing countries, Lacson continued, cave in to international pressure.

Lacson is wrong. Not paying attention to the context of the case is his greatest mistake.

Consent is sacrosanct in international relations built on the principle of equal sovereignty of states. Without its consent, a sovereign state cannot be made to do anything. At the end of consent is the use of force.

Intuitively, it’s quite doubtful that a sovereign state that didn’t consent to an arbitration proceeding would bow to its decision, all the more so if the decision concerns territorial disputes.

Empirically, it has been shown that countries in the same position as China are less likely to comply with arbitration and adjudication decisions. That’s the insight one would get if one reads Bargaining Power and the Arbitration and Adjudication of Territorial Claims (2014) by Stephen Gent and Megan Shannon.

From the database of the Issue Correlates of War (ICOW), Gent and Shannon identified 37 territorial disputes that underwent arbitration and adjudication from 1816 to 2001. Their aim was to find out the consequence of balance of power (measured in terms of material capability) of the disputants to their compliance to international rulings on territorial disputes.

Gent and Shannon’s conclusion should infuse a dose of realism to Lacson: “When significantly stronger states, in terms of material capabilities, are asked to make greater territorial concessions than their counterparts, compliance is less likely.”

Between the Philippines and China, the balance of power leans towards the latter. The arbitral ruling demands so much concession from China. True to the findings of Gent and Shannon, China won’t comply. And contrary to Lacson’s wishful thinking, international pressure won’t really nudge China.

Why is this so?

All states are looking after their own interests. If they are rational, they will pay attention to the strategic context and seek outcomes that aren’t inimical to their interests within the constraints of that context.

Being rational, China will seek an outcome that won’t compromise its interests. If China could achieve it through force, then it would as well do it, even in the face of public censure. Just like any sovereign country, China is a servant to its interests and not to the demands of countries, veiling their interests in the cloth of righteousness.

International courts are just one of the arenas in which states pursue their interests. And courts aren’t usually arenas of power where a win-win outcome for the disputants is likely. As Victor Corpus wrote in his column in this paper (Manila Times, April 20, 2017, the arbitral ruling “was a total win for the Philippines and a total loss for China. But this victory will eventually end up as a ‘zero-sum’ game for us because China will make sure that we do not get a single drop of oil, a single cubic foot of gas, or even a single piece of fish from the disputed area.”

International pressure might be effective but only if the issue is more moral than political. Territorial disputes aren’t moral but political issues. And as Gent and Shannon argued, since these are “political in nature…states are primarily interested in achieving outcomes that protect their own security and economic interests.” Oftentimes, international pressure doesn’t care about accommodating the interests of the target of its indignation. Hence, international pressure is bound to fail in making a country comply with a decision that demands so much concession from it that are inimical to its interests.

Certainly, the Philippines also has its own interests to pursue. However, it must pursue it in the present strategic context, cognizant of the realities of international relations. Shaming China before the world and drumming up international pressure, which the Aquino administration did, hasn’t nudged China to participate in the arbitration proceedings nor halted its activities in the South China Sea in pursuit of its interests. That China could be made to comply with the decision of that proceeding through international pressure is plain wishful thinking.

Lacson and those who share his views should finally come down to earth and realize what must be done. If we want to achieve something in international relations, we either use force or negotiate to reconcile our interests. In his statement, Lacson acknowledged that force should be out of the question. So, what’s left? Barking at China isn’t it.

(Published in The Manila Times, 3 May 2017)

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