Five years after a landmark arbitration ruling, Manila’s actions in the South China Sea leave much to be desired. Clamor to do more has built up ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte’s sixth and last State of the Nation Address on July 26. This said, despite some unhelpful off-the-cuff remarks, the arbitral award is being officially etched in Philippine security and diplomacy. As Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, in celebrating the fifth anniversary of the decision, succinctly put it: “the award is the North Star that will keep us on course in the present, and that will point us back to the right direction in the future should we, in a moment of weakness or inaction, lose our way.”
As Philippine presidential elections loom, the administration’s stance on the flashpoint will continue to draw criticism within and outside the ruling party as candidates posture to court votes. But as Duterte eventually realized after assuming office, balancing the aspirational and the pragmatic is no easy feat. The disconnect between domestic public expectation and government policy stems from the president’s appreciation of what the award can realistically deliver in terms of addressing a complex and intractable dispute. This view itself sets constraints on what the ruling can possibly achieve, but the six-year term of a president discourages charting the type of long-term strategy which might actually induce compliance by China, which refused to participate in the arbitration process and vowed not to abide by its outcome. No leader with any further ambition or desire to anoint a successor would want to sour ties with an up-and-coming superpower neighbor adept in economic statecraft.
Thus, instead of taking the award as the basis for conducting bilateral relations, the Duterte administration confined it to a narrower subset of issues, employing it as leverage in handling the territorial and maritime tiff. The anticipated gains from the judgment were reduced to preventing occupation of new features, managing incidents, and insulating the broader relationship from tensions. This left ample room for Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, although other factors beyond the arbitration have been at play in China’s heightened presence and activities in the contested space—not least of which is its growing rivalry with the United States.
The 2016 award put the incoming Duterte government in a bind. On the one hand, it wished, and still wishes, to avoid further acrimony with its largest trade partner and is eager to catch up with its Southeast Asian neighbors in cornering more Chinese economic largesse. At the same time, it has also been under duress to assert the historic ruling and rollback Beijing’s gains in the coveted sea. Caught in between intense economic and security pressures, both domestic and foreign, Manila downplayed the disputes, warmed up relations with China, distanced itself, regrettably, from the United States, and took steps to enhance its defense posture, all the while broadcasting confusing signals at home and abroad.
Notwithstanding his views about the arbitration and its proponents, Duterte understands that he can neither drop it like a hot potato nor force it upon Beijing. But the tribunal decision need not be an impediment to productive relations and its assertion need not lead to conflict. Manila’s own actions attest to this. Similarly, as the case has already been brought, argued, and decided, it is futile to expend much time and effort probing the wisdom behind taking the legal track and the intramurals among the players involved. To move forward with the legal victory, the Philippines should carry on with four actions, many of which it has already begun.
First, it must continue to raise the award publicly. The fiery leader cited the ruling in his inaugural address in 2016 where he described it as “an important contribution to the ongoing efforts to pursue the peaceful resolution and management of our disputes.” In a speech he gave before the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly last year, he also said that the award is “now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.” He added that the country “firmly reject[s] attempts to undermine it” and “welcome[s] the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for.”
Second, Manila should reference the award in conducting its sovereign actions in the South China Sea. The award provides a durable and legitimate anchor for filing diplomatic protests, stepping up maritime patrols, upgrading infrastructure on features the Philippines administers, lifting the moratorium on oil and gas activities, and providing greater protection to Filipino fisherfolk accessing their traditional fishing grounds, . Under Duterte’s watch, the country embarked on major infrastructure improvements on Thitu Island (Pag-asa), the seat of its Kalayaan municipality, completing a port and rehabilitating a derelict airstrip, with plans to turn the administrative center into a logistics hub. It likewise sustained investments in military and coast guard modernization, commissioning two modern multirole frigates and six light attack aircraft, and purchasing 16 medium-lift utility helicopters, among other assets. Manila has also begun exploring the acquisition of subsurface capabilities.
Third, the country should continue to engage China bilaterally and regionally. The Bilateral Consultation Mechanism established in 2016 as a dedicated platform for handling maritime issues between the two countries has already met six times, and similar dialogue mechanisms were created between Malaysia and China in 2019 and between Indonesia and China last month. These platforms help prevent incidents at sea from turning into crises while negotiations for an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct (COC) remain stalled by the pandemic. In fact, the COC can build on the success of these bilateral avenues and complement regional confidence building measures.
As one of its founding fathers and a frontline claimant, Manila should continue to lobby within ASEAN to keep robust language on the South China Sea that references the spirit if not the letter of the award. As ASEAN-China country coordinator, the Philippines should also ensure that the maritime row remains high on the agenda of both sides. While Beijing naturally disavows the ruling, it responds to direct talks with disputants. This, in fact, provides a mutually face-saving formula whereby Manila cites the award and Beijing credits dialogue as the basis for progress toward stabilizing the flashpoint.
Finally, Manila should avoid making any public statement that will diminish the value of the award. Doing so will weaken its utility in future scenarios and leave the Philippines with fewer options. It should likewise refrain from conveying mixed messages that may confuse neighbors, friends, partners, and allies.
These actions will preserve the merits of the arbitration award to promote the country’s national interests in the South China Sea. It will also reinforce the weight of international law in a longstanding geopolitical flashpoint. Regardless of who wins in next year’s presidential elections, these four points will remain relevant.