Baviera and Ong on the Spratlys Issue and Sino-Philippine Relations

In conclusion of PH.CN’s three-part series of re-echoing of what was discussed in the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Forum on the South China Sea, I would like to share to you the presentations made by Prof. Aileen San Pablo-Baviera of the Asian Center at the University of the Philippines and Dato Timothy Ong, a leading Brunei businessman and Chairman of Asia Inc. Forum.

Aquino policy on the South China Sea: Are we ready for tough times ahead? By Prof. A. Baviera

The territorial disputes and maritime jurisdiction issues in the South China Sea will be a continuing bone of contention between the Philippines and its neighbors, especially for China, for many years to come.

Since the 1990s, the Philippines has been pro-active in seeking cooperative, rules-based approaches to managing the disputes relying on both bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy. Bilaterally­­, the Philippines entered into agreements with China and Vietnam in 1995 and 1997 pledging self-restraint and urging cooperation on non-sensitive areas. Many high-level exchanges were held, including among military officials. Even at the height of tensions over Mischief Reef, bilateral trade and people-to-people ties between Beijing and Manila thrived.

Multilaterally, the Philippines also spearheaded the 1992 Manila Declaration by ASEAN states, the negotiation of an ASEAN-China code of conduct (COC) which resulted in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) and even the ill-fated Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) with China and Vietnam which was allowed to lapse after being implicated in alleged corrupt and treasonous activities of the previous regime.

The JMSU fiasco was a logical outcome of the way the Arroyo administration allowed domestic policies and regime interests to dominate the country’s China policy with disastrous consequences for our security and foreign policy. Today, we are still trying to get relations back on track and are farther than ever from agreement on how to manage the disputes.

In the meantime, a new layer of security challenges loom over Southeast Asia, with the maritime disputes at its core. Several regional states have recently worked to delineate territories and boundaries (in our case, the 2009 Baselines Law), increasing tensions with China. Oil exploration activities have been on the rise. China’s increasing assertiveness and growth in military capabilities cause concern. Sino-American rivalry for strategic influence in East Asia is casting a big shadow over attempts to solve the disputes peacefully.

This is the security environment in the South China Sea that the Aquino government now confronts.

The Aquino administration has been confidently articulated its preferred multi-dimensional approach to the disputes. This is expressed in the Philippine proposal to turn the South China Sea into a “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation”. This approach places ASEAN at the center of any solution, which is appropriate because a non-threatening, neutral and moderate ASEAN is acceptable to China and other stakeholders., It emphasizes rules-based solutions and reliance on international law, a fundamental principle if we are to prevent a situation where military might becomes the final arbiter.

The approach is an inclusivist, cognizant of states with a particular interest in freedom of navigation such as Japan and the United States. However, caution must be exercised to ensure that non-claimants play a role supportive of a peaceful and equitable settlement, rather than one that exacerbates tensions in the regions. The Aquino policy also rightly stresses the needed to build the capability of the Armed Forces and the Coast Guard, so that the country may not only strengthen its defenses but in the future contribute its share to keeping order at sea.

Where the Aquino policy differs from the past is in readiness to confront the issues directly underpinning the conflicts, shifting attention from confidence building activities to trying to clarify the basis of the claims, including calling for a determinations of non-disputed from the disputed areas. Knowing the exact meters and bounds of the contested areas may help better define the possible areas for cooperation or even future joint development of resources.

What appears to be lacking in the emerging policy of the Aquino administration is a strategy of re-engagement with China. During the President’s state visit to China which was arguable touted a success, the two parties “agreed to disagree” on this issue. That said, there is a great need for both sides to assure each other of their commitment to peaceful resolution, which means continuing dialogue and mutual persuasion about even divergent perspectives. The Philippines and China, too should start stepping back from the tough, unfriendly rhetoric as a gesture of goodwill and peaceful intent.

Also lacking is follow-up action on the proposed ASEAN-China Code of Conduct. Frustration and impatience over the difficult drafting process may be understandable; however there is no greater need for such an agreement than now. Given the worrying security environment described earlier, an agreement by the claimant states, recognized and supported by neighbors as well as extra-regional states that focuses on measures to avoid armed conflict and reduce the risk as miscalculation at sea is imperative.


Basis for cautious optimism By Dato T. Ong

In a recent issue, the influential American magazine Foreign Policy asked a number of well-known commentators to make large predictions on the future. Of the nine predictions, most seemed far removed from our lives. One however was directly relevant to the Philippines and the other maritime states of East Asia. The writer, Robert Kaplan, a member of the Defense Policy Board of the United States Defense Department predicted that “the South China Sea is the future of conflict”.

Because of its geography as the main trade access to the booming economies of East Asia, its history of multiple and complex territorial claims, its geology of immense wealth in hydrocarbon resources, the South China Sea is increasingly the main area arena of conflict and competition between a rising China on one hand and the United States of America and other maritime states of the region on the other.

When I accepted former Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Roberto Romulo’s invitation to take part in the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation’s Forum on the South China Sea, I expected to have this outlook confirmed.

Certainly, there was little basis for optimism. China’s “nine dotted lines” claim although vaguely defined was ambitious in its reach. Joined together the dotted lines cover almost the entire South China Sea. Even something as innocuous as strengthening the “Declaration on Conduct: between China and ASEAN to manage conflicting claims in the South China Sea had been almost impossible to agree upon with China showing no interest in anything binding.

At the conclusion of the forum, I was struck by two clear but disconnected themes that sits uneasily with each other. On the one hand, there was broad agreement that the issues underlying the conflicting claims are complex and intractable and inextricably linked to national and strategic interests. On the other hand, there was broad agreement that the conflicting claims must be managed peacefully without disrupting Asia Pacific regionalism and economic integration.

These two themes are supported by development within the Asia Pacific. The rise in tensions arising from conflicting claims, the build up in arms and increasing nationalist posturing has gone hand in hand with rapidly growing economic links between China, the Philippines and the other maritime states of South China Sea. Almost bewildering to the western eye, the parties to the conflicting claims have continued to embrace each other while squabbling. In short, nothing so far has come in the way of doing business.

What explains growing tensions on the one hand and business as usual on the other? The cynic in the Philippines and elsewhere in ASEAN will be tempted to see this as appeasement or at any rate accommodation of China’s growing might. As a Vietnamese delegate at the Forum observed, China’s invitation for to put aside sovereignty issues and focus on joint development is a little like “What is mine is mine; what is yours is mine and we are willing to share”.

My take is less cynical. My view is that ASEAN’s willingness to separate the difficult issues of sovereignty from the practical ones of resource management; to emphasize common interests and deemphasize differences; to focus on managing conflict rather than securing complete solution reflects a necessary pragmatism.

It was this pragmatism that led to the Thai-Malaysian Development Area, a mutually beneficial framework for managing their conflicting claims in the Gulf of Thailand and to the successful management of a number of territorial disputes within the region. As a distinguished participant and one of ASEAN’s leading expert on the Law of the Sea urged: Start with the less sensitive issues and focus on the common ground”.

The ASEAN pragmatism reminds me of the distinction the scholar James P. Carse made between two types of “games”, finite and infinite. Finite games are played with the goal of winning. Infinite games on the other hand, do not have a knowable beginning or ending. They are played with the goal of continuing play.

Listening to the diverse views from the participants across the Asia Pacific at the forum, observing the inflexibility of final positions and pragmatism of the next steps, I concluded that the continuing skirmishes around the conflicting claims of the South China Sea, diplomatic, military, and otherwise should be viewed and assessed as an infinite game. The aim is not to win; the aim is to keep playing.

With this thought at the conclusion of the forum, I began to feel that there is some basis for cautious optimism on the South China Sea.





J. Sun E.

Sun, a Filipino based in China, writes PH.CN on ProPinoy, a weekly column on Philippines-China relations, politics, history, and current events. He studied Political Science, History, and Foreign Languages in Philippines and China. Follow him on Twitter @phdotcn

  • When there is a claim by one party such as “what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine and we are willing to share” in a conflict of interests among a group, it is impossible for the other members to play the “indefinite game”. 

    Because in that situation there is no game since the claimant who is of far superior strength militarily and economically has allocated everything unto itself, leaving the other members with nothing but voluntary consideration and dole out at the discretion of the stronger claimant.

    The position taken by Dato T. Ong is not tenable.

  • J_ag

    Global economic imbalances and diplomacy… Historically when countries experience economic crisis they have been able to export their economic problems.  China and the U.S. are no different.  The problems in Europe are no different. For Germany to export they have had to give loans to their buyers…Now those loans have racked up and this system was not sustainable. 

    The same with China and the U.S./EU  The Chinese very wisely used the gigantic U.S./EU market to propel  their quick rise.. But this was underpinned by supplying credit to the buyers in the case of the U.S. This system has exploded and the U.S. can no longer be the buyer of first and last resort. 

    However China is still only half rural and half urban.  The internal imbalances cannot hold for long while China reverses course and finds a new growth  model.  In times of economic uncertainty  national self interest becomes dominant. The U.S. needs to export more and import less while China needs to import more and export less. 

    That is easier said than done… 

    The rise of nationalism can be dangerous.   

    • So can the weakening of strong nations around which so much instability circles.