Duterte and the dilemmas of sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea

CONJUGATIONS - Lila Ramos Shahani - Philstar.com

A handful of Filipino fishermen in a small boat brave hours of open sea off the west coast of Luzon, making way toward the familiar fishing grounds surrounding Scarborough Shoal. Experienced seamen, constantly scanning the limitless horizon, the first sign of their destination is a scattering of other small boats—Chinese fishing boats. Soon after, a Chinese trawler several times larger than their own boat heaves into view. The Filipinos well know that among the “fishermen” on board are Chinese maritime militia—directly in the chain of command of the People’s Liberation Army on Hainan Island, where they were trained. As the trawler approaches, another vessel becomes visible on the horizon—hazy in its greater distance because of its enormous size—a Chinese Coast Guard blue-water ship.

Our fishermen are alone. That they are vastly outnumbered by competitors from a distant land, harvesting the very bounty upon which their livelihood depends, is bad enough. On top of that, their boats are comparatively underpowered, the militia armed and the Coast Guard ship powered with guns that could blow them out of the water with a single shot. But, most of all, our Filipino fishermen are out there alone. Whatever happens, they are alone.

Celebrate the Award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague declaring that China has been violating our sovereignty as we may, our fishermen remain alone because the sea is vast and the vessels that might protect them are few. The Award, in fact, changed little about the balance of power in the West Philippine Sea—US, Chinese and Filipino power relations are exactly what they’ve been all along. The vessels—like the best fishing grounds—are as few as the sea is vast.

The Award itself, in the words of one international law-of-the-sea expert, is “breathtaking.” It is historic—a milestone that clarifies issues and legalities that for years remained ill-defined. That alone makes it a diplomatic coup for the Aquino administration. For President Aquino, Secretary Del Rosario and Supreme Court Justice Carpio, congratulations are in order.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine a worse time for the Award to be handed down. Nationalism—push-back from the ever growing inequality of globalization—is everywhere experiencing grassroots ascendancy. We’ve just seen it in our own presidential election; we see it in the rise of Trump and Sanders in the US; we see it in the issues currently threatening to fracture the EU. But where we seldom see it is inside China. Though much there is hidden—including internet—we seldom see how important the manipulation of grassroots nationalism is to the Chinese Communist Party  (CCP)’s continuing leadership.

In the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty was seen as weak because it was unable to fend off European colonists and the Republic of China that followed—the government that was driven off to Taiwan—was seen as worse, for its failure to counter the Japanese invasion. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has counted its military might and ability to resist any incursion from outside as the very foundation of its legitimacy. Now, after the delivery of this stinging blow from the PCA, the People’s Republic has somewhat painted itself into a corner. The CCP has embraced economic growth long enough that most of the population now expects to continue harvesting the gains of globalization.

But that sort of economic growth is strongly tied to international agreements, which, if it wishes to keep doing good business, it must have a reputation for honoring. Not necessarily without a struggle, but honoring nonetheless. UNCLOS—which both the Philippines and China have signed—is such an agreement. Worse, many of China’s other international trading partners have also signed UNCLOS and consider the Award of the PCA valid. For the PRC, it is a situation that could prove very destabilizing. A perception of weakness that could undermine the CCP’s control right at a time when its leadership is trying instead to strengthen it.

One hard-to-miss sign of the PRC leadership’s quandary manifested in the immediate wake of the Award: China’s censors began scrubbing their social media and micro-blogging sites of many messages. The messages were not taken down because they supported the Award. They were taken down because commenters were potentially celebrating a coming war.

That China doesn’t want a war not only goes without saying; it has been said many times of late—and everyone believes them—because, even without Australia and Japan, that great hegemon, the US, could easily make them pay too dearly. Nor does the Philippines want to have a war. Geopolitical tensions can be good for business, but wars themselves are bad for business. And yet, by constantly having touted its nine-dash line claim—by treating areas and features well within the Philippine EEZ as natural parts of China—by rallying their people to the call of Chinese sovereignty—it has polarized its own grassroots nationalists. Now, it must look for a face-saving path that does not lead to actual war.

Meanwhile, the US—which hasn’t signed UNCLOS and has stayed clear of UN tribunal arbitrations since it rejected the International Court of Justice finding against it vs. Nicaragua in 1986—has its own peculiar self-image problem. The US, expressing its exceptionalism as, putatively, “the world’s only superpower,” perceives as part of that role the policing of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. After all, $4.5 trillion’s worth of shipping passes that route annually.

Complicating the freedom of navigation and military prowess aside, is the US trade relationship with China. China is integral to an enormously complex supply chain on which the US consumer economy depends. Besides providing parts and assembly of everything from the latest high tech devices to ordinary household goods, the PRC is also the main source of several rare earth elements without which our latest technology would become impossibly expensive. Then, there’s the US Treasury debt, which is several times larger than the amount required to fatally depress the value of the US dollar.

Of course, we too have self-image issues. Some of our own enthusiastic grassroots nationalists embrace—in spirit at least—the notion of our president on a jet-ski—Philippine flag in one hand, a copy of the Award in the other—providing restoration of our wounded sovereignty. That was probably the underlying humor of Duterte’s much-mocked campaign joke—that neither planting a flag on a rock in the middle of the sea nor a court award was going to alter the existing power balance. Regrettably, vulnerable Filipino fishermen will continue encountering Chinese armadas for quite some time to come.

So despite the victory for sovereignty and rule-of-law at sea that the Award represents, the current administration has little time for celebration—they face some extremely delicate and complex negotiations. Arguably, because of the Award’s effective nullification, the nine-dash line can hardly be mentioned at the bargaining table. The Chinese, for the moment, have no alternative to continued insistence on its validity. If, instead of negotiating over particular situations in particular locations, we insist China reprints its maps—and even its passports—replacing the nine-dash line with the Philippine EEZ boundaries, a Chinese walkout would be almost certain.

Recruiting US military backup for “regaining control” over areas of violated sovereignty will likely cause China to double down on aggressive responses, playing to its multitudes of grassroots nationalists. Stationing fighter planes on the man-made islands, or another bout of high-speed island building—perhaps this time on Scarborough Shoal—within spitting distance of Luzon’s shores. They could bring in oil drilling platforms or establish an air defense identification zone over parts of the sea. More to the point, “double down” is a mantra of the US Pentagon. Now that the Award has been made, the US—and its allied global business partners—may feel called upon to prevent illegal Chinese extra-territorial expansion—which the Award’s language seems to justify.

The non-committal response of the Duterte administration comes as no surprise. Digesting the text of the Award and conferring on appropriate plans of action is going to take some time. Even the US State Department is avoiding press statements. The complication is, of course, that the Chinese have much to say—much that they feel politically compelled to say—because of how the government has presented itself to the people. Meanwhile, tides of grassroots nationalist agitation are sweeping across all three countries.

For a president so committed to domestic matters as Duterte is—and given the doubts expressed about his aptitude for foreign policy during the recent election—PCA’s issuance of this Award has made it necessary for Duterte’s team to re-calibrate their options. He has, however, a deep bench of career diplomats at DFA and is himself a lawyer.

One big unknown is the value our president places on the US and China in terms of how they benefit the Philippines—and his personal ideological disposition toward the two. Given the sober and non-triumphalist response of the government in the recent PCA decision, we can assume that they are formulating a long-term strategic plan. We are waiting to see how the ruling will affect our security relations with the US, our economic relations with China and our alliances with the rest of ASEAN.

Trade issues aside, it’s worth mentioning that about 1,200 Filipinos presently live in China—while 3.5 million Filipinos live in the US. Decisions made in the halls of government must eventually be enacted on the world stage. When it comes to President Duterte and questions of foreign affairs, we are about to learn far more than we ever knew before. Filipinos—armchair patriots who swell with pride over media triumphs—will continue making online fiesta about the Award, while our own grassroots nationalists will beat the same drum in a more warlike fashion. “The Strong Leader” is highly valued in all three countries—one hopes for wisdom, in addition to strength.

But, for now at least, our fishermen are as alone as ever. 

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