ONE is bound to give useless solutions to the South China Sea conflict if one doesn’t take seriously how international relations work. A lot of our politicians are doing that.
Flowing from this sad fact are attempts to look good to our people by suggesting “solutions” — diplomatic protests, arbitration case, seek a UN General Assembly resolution. These “solutions” don’t make us any different from the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who had to run faster just to remain in place. In other words, these “solutions” are mere attempts to look as if you’re doing something that change things rather than just a spectacular display of activities that will not resolve the dispute.
I wonder how many of the current commentators on our dispute with China really read the arbitration decision. One of the things emphatically stressed in the decision on the jurisdiction of the case, released on October 29, 2015, is that the case will not resolve questions of territorial sovereignty.
So, if the arbitration proceedings wasn’t about territorial sovereignty, what was it about
Paragraph 1198 of the decision on the award released on July 12, 2016 is clear about this:
“…the purpose of dispute resolution proceedings is to clarify the Parties’ respective rights and obligations…”
That’s it: An attempt to “clarify” the rights and obligations of China and the Philippines under UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
While the decision did find China in violation of some of our maritime rights, it didn’t indicate what would be the remedy. It didn’t say that China must leave the South China Sea, which the delusional #CHexit campaigners wanted. It didn’t declare that we have “sovereignty” over the “West Philippine Sea,” an area which the decision didn’t even name as the subject of the dispute! It didn’t order China to dismantle its artificial islands. And it didn’t declare those artificial islands as “properties” of the Philippines. All the things that a lot of you wanted China to do weren’t in the decision that the Philippines paid for to the tune of over a billion pesos. It’s an expensive Red Queen strategy.
This could have been prevented if our decisionmakers took seriously how international relations work.
Some of them think that the international system is just like the domestic system, the system we have in our country.
The domestic system is a hierarchical order, with the government on top guaranteeing order in society by ensuring that the citizens are following the law. If any citizen violates the law and the judiciary finds him guilty, the legal decision has a force behind it that could compel obedience or bestow punishment. You don’t have that in the international system.
The international system is anarchic. All states have equal sovereignty with no authority above them that could compel obedience. The UN Security Council (UNSC) acts like a police force, or a “military junta” as one of my professors in international relations once said, but it only steps in if the situation already threatens international peace, security and stability. However, if the situation involves the interests of the five permanent members of the UNSC (China, United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom), expect no action from the UNSC. Citizens cannot veto the action of local courts if their decision are against their interests.
Most sources of international law are treaties; and they are constructed with so much ambiguity. States strive to have that ambiguity so that the treaty could be interpreted in such a way that it would accommodate their interests. States cannot become a party to a treaty without their consent. And they can withdraw that consent anytime they want. Some say that “legally,” states cannot do this. But those who say that assume that the effects of legality in the domestic system is the same in the international system.
In the domestic system, our consent isn’t relevant to the implementation of the decision of the courts against us. In the international system, it is. You cannot compel any country to do anything that it didn’t consent to. Period.
So how can the Philippines override the lack of consent of China? Power.
Military power: Use force, which is simply a euphemism for war. Newsflash: Our military power versus China is laughable. To remedy that, they say we must form a military alliance. But then again, these folks forget that strong parties in an alliance will never let weak ones direct the alliance according to their wishes for the simple reason that the weak ones aren’t the ones that would spend the most for the action the alliance would take.
Economic power. Perhaps trade sanctions against China. So, name any country willing to cut off their trade relations with China so that the Philippines will be happy.
Diplomatic power. This is closely tied to economic power. I checked The World Fact Book of the Central Intelligence Agency and found that China is a significant import and export partner of 167 and 88 countries, respectively. On the other hand, the Philippines is a significant export partner of two: Kiribati and Trinidad & Tobago; and significant import partner of Palau.
Since you don’t have power to compel China to override its lack of consent, what’s our only other option? Do what it has repeatedly given its consent to: negotiate bilaterally.
(Published in The Manila Times on 31 May 2018)
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