This is the second of my two-part blog on the Scarborough Shoal standoff. The first one examines the existing PH-US mutual defense treaty.
The New York Times mentioned the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines over certain areas in the West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea) in the May 2 edition of “Room for Debate,” a regular section of the newspaper where experts give their views on the hottest issues of the day. The May 2 edition of “Room for Debate” is titled “Are we headed for a cold war with China?” – referring to the United States government.
The standoff over Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys Island should be seen in its proper geopolitical context. Although it appears that China is just after the aquatic resources and potential gas reserves in the West Philippine Sea, the country is actually seeking to dominate the entire area. Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, put it this way: “China has greater ambitions now that it is more powerful. China wants more control, if not hegemony, over the Asia Pacific.”
That obviously is one scenario the United States dreads. But given the tough realities US is facing right now, all they can do is pronounce neutrality on one hand while reaffirming its treaty-mandated commitment to the Philippines on the other. No one among China, United States, and the Philippines can afford an armed military conflict. If China decides to use its military superiority over an impoverished country like the Philippines, it risks being regarded as a giant bully – tarnishing its international image in the process.
Since the Philippines cannot really count on America’s support in the event of a shooting war with China, the only option that Filipino leaders have is to settle the Scarborough Shoal dispute diplomatically. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has already referred the case to the International Tribunal on the Laws of the Sea (ITLOS) for arbitration, a step China vehemently opposes.
China’s refusal to cooperate means they are not confident of being able to substantiate their so-called historical claims to the disputed areas. Instead of asking the ITLOS or the International Court of Justice to resolve the standoff, Beijing has repeatedly said it prefers dealing with the matter through bilateral negotiations. “Let’s not go the legal way. Let’s do it the friendly way,” high ranking Chinese government officials told Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.
During bilateral negotiations, each party involved must recognize each other as their equal. Is it realistic for the Philippines to expect that China will deal with it on equal footing? That being not the case, the best way to go is still to ask the abovementioned international organizations to arbitrate the validity of claims raised by both China and Philippines on those disputed areas. Even if China holds a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, the said world body acts under the principle of “sovereign equality of all its members.”
Recently, Henry Bensurto Jr. of the DFA Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs Secretariat disclosed during a Senate hearing that a provision in the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas “allows signatory states to avail themselves of compulsory dispute settlement in cases when consensual mechanisms for settlement fail.” If this is indeed true, then the Philippines should waste no time to utilize this option.
And while the case is being tackled there, all nations must refrain from making any provocative actions in the contested areas within West Philippine Sea. If the ITLOS eventually affirm the claim made by the Philippines, will China abide by the ruling? And consequently, what will the UN do if China continues its aggressive behavior in the disputed territories even after it has ruled in favor of the Philippines? Abangan.