United we should stand
Once again, the Philippines is thrust into a historical juncture with evolving political-security and economic challenges impinging upon its national interest and those of other member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The continued Chinese military buildup in the South China Sea has long been disturbing and the resulting skirmishes have triggered a series of protests, diplomatic undertakings, and even independent actions of concerned countries. To put things into perspective, the following considerations are critical.
First, the small states of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines should not merely yield their sovereign rights over the disputed territory and sacrifice the livelihood of millions of fishers. Sheer capitulation should be out of the question, and collective sovereign assertion should be the regional concern.
Second, a rules-based order (Nishihara, 2017) is the favorable setup. In a world order where the interests of different states interlock and at times come into conflict, the adherence to international law is the rule of thumb for political coexistence. The implementation of international law, however, is confronted by the ambivalent character of individual nation-states that could serve as impediment.
Third, if international law could be evaded, the second line of defense, for small states in particular, is regional unity. In this respect, there can be no better timing for Asean to assert its regional presence. Its support for the formulation and implementation of a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea would be the key step to safeguarding Indo-Pacific security. In turn, the other member-states involved in the territorial dispute should also assert, in their individual capacity, the judicious and peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Aside from a binding Code of Conduct, the level of coordination and cooperation among Asean member-states could be reassessed and upgraded to the point of creating a common foreign and security policy. Such a policy is critical to any attempt at solidifying and empowering a regional bloc. The Trilateral Maritime and Air Patrols launched by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to combat smuggling, terrorism and human trafficking, among other transnational crimes, around the Sulu and Celebes Seas is a concrete step in the right direction.
Further, Asean should optimize its partnership and alliance with key players in the region. By continuing a multilateral approach to regional problems and challenges, the bloc should maintain its ties with the United States, Japan, and Australia. Underlying a multilateral approach is, of course, the continuous forging of bilateral agreements. Diplomacy with bigger states, together with the assertion of regional unity, is an effective deterrent whether the Chinese military buildup is “nothing” or “something.”
At the heart of the Indo-Pacific region is Asean, and at the heart of Asean is the Philippines. The historically strategic location of our country in terms of regional security and maritime concerns prompts the Philippine government to assert its sovereign claim in the South China Sea. In turn, Asean should continue its role as a medium of regional security in the disputed territory and harness unity among the concerned member-states.
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Dindo Manhit is founder and managing director of Stratbase Group.
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