The July 12 verdict of a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration represented a watershed moment in the tumultuous history of the South China Sea dispute. Manila’s overwhelming legal victory over Beijing already sent ripples across the region and the world. According to the AMTI Arbitration Support Tracker, since the ruling 7 countries have publicly called for it to be respected, 33 have positively acknowledged it but fell short of calling for compliance, and just 4 have publicly rejected it. In effect, China’s international reputation as a responsible, rising power is now under heavy fire, its narrative of peaceful rise subjected to international scrutiny, and its strategic maneuvering to back its sovereignty claims undermined.
But while the Philippines is celebrating its de jure victory, developments on the ground ought to be a cause of serious concern. In a seeming act of defiance, Chinese Coast Guard vessels continue to block Filipino fishermen who have attempted to sail to Scarborough Shoal in the wake of the ruling. It remains to be seen whether President Xi Jinping will continue to give primacy to domestic pressure over the international outcry by proceeding with artificial island construction at Scarborough, the deployment of military assets on China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratlys, and/or the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over large swathes of the South China Sea.
How then could the Philippines translate its legal victory into reality on the ground, especially for the thousands of Filipino families whose livelihood are directly impacted by the ongoing maritime tensions? One possible answer may be the simultaneous pursuit of deescalation and deterrence. On the one hand, the Philippines should “set the tone” for peaceful resolution of the dispute through assertive diplomacy, in bilateral and multilateral fora, calling on China and other relevant parties to adhere to the rules-based order, in general, and the ruling, in particular. On the other hand, the Philippines must beef up its own military and law enforcement capabilities as well as strengthen its alliances with like-minded countries to effectively implement the rules and raise both the material and reputational cost for China’s non-adherence.
Peaceful resolution of maritime disputes remains the strategic objective for the Philippines. Given that international law and public opinion are now fully in Manila’s favor, it is important that the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte play its cards well, both in its bilateral ties with China as well as multilateral engagements with fellow ASEAN member-states and extra-regional powers that share a common interest in the overall preservation of regional peace and stability. The Philippines should uphold the stipulations of the ruling as the basis for future resumption of high-level government-to-government talks and possible pursuit of foreign investment under a joint venture with China. It is imperative for the Philippines to provide reasonable time for China to manage the risk of growing nationalism at home while working to bring its maritime laws in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
In multilateral relations, the Philippines should actively present its case as a legal precedent for ASEAN claimant-states to further clarify their respective maritime entitlements and boundaries as well as align their domestic policies on fishing rights and mineral/oil and gas exploration with UNCLOS. This would eventually serve as legal basis for future maritime delimitation and resource-sharing agreements among ASEAN claimant-states and between ASEAN claimants and China, thereby reducing the risk of violent encounters at sea. Furthermore, the Philippines should harness its newfound moral high ground to push for the adherence of all parties to the ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea and expedite the conclusion of a binding Code of Conduct. Finally, the Philippines must build on its political capital by persisting in sending a clear message in upcoming regional fora such as the ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit that it is in China’s long-term interests to play a constructive role as a rising power, abide by the terms of the ruling, and prevent further coercive activities that destabilize the region.
While pursuing ways to diffuse maritime tension and lay the groundwork for future cooperation with China on the diplomatic front, the Philippine government should not lose sight of the necessity to effectively implement the arbitral ruling and increase the risk calculus for China’s non-compliance with UNCLOS. Hence, the Duterte administration ought to use the ruling as a legal foundation for updating its comprehensive defense and security plans for the South China Sea, and a political justification for increasing the defense budget and accelerating naval and coast guard modernization. Duterte could immediately use his huge political capital to urge the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine Coast Guard to speed up their acquisition of naval assets and coast guard vessels to effectively prevent present and future encroachments of Chinese Coast Guard vessels and fishing militia in waters already deemed by the tribunal to be under Philippine jurisdiction. In the long-term, the Philippines ought to coordinate government and civil society efforts to upgrade military outposts and develop civilian communities in the Spratlys as well as invest in modern asymmetric and defensive capabilities to challenge China’s “swarm” or “cabbage strategy.”
Along with beefing up its navy and coast guard capabilities, the Philippines may opt to synchronize its defense plan with fellow ASEAN maritime powers, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia to prevent undue incidents among themselves and come up with a more unified front to effectively repulse Chinese encroachments in their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. Furthermore, the Philippines should capitalize on the ruling to further strengthen its military partnerships with and gain more concessions from the United States, under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) framework, as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia and the European Union, all of whom have a shared interest in the preservation of freedom of navigation. This may entail more joint interoperability training, greater rotational presence, technology and capital transfer, and even the creation of defense economic zones in the Philippines which could be hubs for naval/coast guard ship manufacturing.
Toward a Balanced Liberal and Realpolitik Approach
Manila’s legal triumph over Beijing was not just about the Philippines’ assertion of its inherent right as a sovereign nation to defend its maritime entitlements under international law for present and future generations of Filipinos. It was a hard-won victory for the international rules-based order against nineteenth century-style gunboat diplomacy. Now it is imperative that the Philippines not rest on its laurel, but rather exhaust all means for the ruling to be implemented and the liberal order preserved. Therefore, the country ought to strike a delicate balance between assertive diplomacy (the liberal approach) that advocates for China and the international community to respect the sanctity of the law of the oceans as a pillar of stability and prosperity for all; and beef up its navy and coast guard while strengthening alliances (the realpolitik approach) that provides the much need teeth for the ruling to be effectively observed in the absence of any other enforcement mechanism. Only then will the region be able to keep the peace.
A version of this piece first appeared on ADRi’s Spark blog here.