Demilitarize SCS to take back WPS
President Duterte’s kowtowing foreign policy on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, allowing China to build military installations on disputed territory, is a threat to regional peace as it essentially entrenches China in the contested area. This emboldens China to aggressively resist any efforts at a peaceful resolution as its powers grow in disparate proportion to the other disputants.
A peaceful resolution requires a multilateral approach that strongly demands the cessation of expansion activities of any disputant and the total demilitarization of the SCS.
President Duterte’s theory that China will invade us if we assert our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) is baseless, otherwise China would have gone to war against us when we filed and won the arbitration case as it was the sharpest attack on China by any disputant. Countries such as Vietnam have actively protected their claims against China, yet China cannot invade Vietnam for fear that the international community will militarily oppose this act of aggression. The Philippines could have gathered international support to assert our rights and oppose China’s expansion in the WPS.
During the 2017 East Asia Summit, Japan already called for demilitarization of the SCS, concerned that China’s growing military power increases regional tension and instability. In 2016, the European Union declared that “deployment of military forces or equipment” in the SCS threatens freedom of navigation and security and called on “all claimants to refrain from militarisation in the region.”
Demilitarization entails the United Nations’ approval of a resolution, which can be filed by the Philippines, ordering the dismantling of all military installations in the SCS and prohibiting any military deployment of any country. Once China’s installations are dismantled, the disputants can discuss the resolution of the dispute on relatively even terms.
While complete demilitarization is not easy, it is not impossible. The legal basis is clear under Chapter I of the UN Charter which provides that among the purposes of the UN is “To maintain international peace and security and to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace.”
China could be forced to accede to a demilitarization effort strongly supported by UN members. In the case of US v. Nicaragua, the United States refused to comply with a 1986 International Court of Justice decision declaring the United States in breach of international law for supporting Contra attacks against Nicaragua. After the United States vetoed Nicaragua’s request in the UN Security Council for the enforcement of the ICJ decision, Nicaragua resorted to the UN General Assembly and got overwhelming support. Eventually, the United States complied with the ICJ decision.
Once a widely-supported demilitarization resolution is filed, China may be forced to stop its military expansion in the SCS as it risks much if it goes against a UN decision.
While President Duterte may not immediately support demilitarization, he may backtrack from his hard pro-China position on the WPS as the opposition against him in the Philippines grows. Otherwise, the possibility of Philippine support in this demilitarization initiative will come in 2022 when he is replaced by a new president who has the courage to assert our sovereign rights against China.
Demilitarization may be a bold idea, but the current conditions in the SCS require boldness. Any solution without demilitarization will only strengthen China’s advantages, and because of the disparity in power, will make the search for a peaceful resolution elusive.
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Neri Javier Colmenares is a human rights lawyer, the vice president of the Confederation of Lawyers in Asia-Pacific, and a bureau member of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. He is also a member of the International Bar Association Council, chair of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines adviser on advocacy and legislation. This article is part of his research delivered at the International Conference on the SCS Dispute in Moscow (2019) and in the 2018 international conference on “Effective Approaches at Conflict Resolution.”