The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the Office of Strategic Studies and Strategy Management (OSSSM) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the National Defense College (NDCP) of the Philippines conducted the fifth Heneral Antonio Luna Colloquium Series with the theme “The Peaceful Resolution of Territorial and Maritime Disputes: The Arbitration Case between the Philippines and China” on 18 April 2017 at the Carlos P. Romulo Library, Department of Foreign Affairs. The guest speaker was Dr. Krista Wiegand, a Fulbright Senior Scholar and an Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee. The event was attended by military officers, civilian government officials, and members of the academe.
Dr. Wiegand congratulated the Philippines for its bold move in pursuing arbitration, and regarded it as the most effective strategy for dispute resolution. She considered three factors that led to this decision: 1) the need to counterbalance China’s military actions in the South China Sea; 2) a personalized foreign policy approach by presidents; and 3) higher probability of winning.
According to Dr. Wiegand, the Philippines lacks the ability to use military might against China, considering the disparity in their military capabilities. It cannot also use military force as leverage even with US support because of the latter’s strategic ambiguity – the absence of a clear “red line” as to when the US would intervene militarily in the South China Sea. Arbitration, therefore, acted as a means to “level the playing field” between the Philippines and China.
Dr. Wiegand also said that contrary to China’s claims, the decision to pursue arbitration was not a product of the US’ pressure on the Philippines. In fact, President Aquino was asked to consider arbitration in 2011 following a series of incidents including the harassment of a Philippine vessel at Reed Bank, but he only acted on it after China took control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 – a “perfect storm” that served as a tipping point for the Philippines. Other presidents would not have been that assertive towards China, but it can be argued that it was a fitting response considering China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea during that time.
Submitting to arbitration under Annex VII of UNCLOS also provided the Philippines a higher likelihood of winning as the case deals with the issue of interpretation of UNCLOS with regard to maritime entitlements, and not sovereignty. It was also a wise decision as arbitration does not require mutual consent of parties, as is required in the International Court of Justice. It would allow the case to push through even without the participation of China, which was a likely scenario.
When asked about the US policy on the South China Sea by the Trump administration, Dr. Wiegand stated that it may still be too early to know, but there is a strong indication that President Trump will continue the Obama strategy without direct reference to it, in order to maintain the presence of the US naval fleet in the Pacific.
With regard to the strategy by President Duterte in dealing with China, Dr. Wiegand stated that governments can simultaneously pursue multiple avenues for dispute management. President Duterte needs to deal with the outcome of the arbitration in a way that will not further humiliate China in public. His strategy of engaging China provides an opportunity for both countries to deal with the issue privately. It also creates optimism on the restoration of bilateral relations especially with Chinese investments coming in. While allowing China to save face, however, the Philippines also needs to be cautious of China’s credibility and make sure that it will follow through with its friendly overtures. The Philippines and the international community will be watching China’s activities in the South China Sea, and should demand accountability for its actions. The Philippines should balance between enforcing the ruling and maintaining positive relations with China.