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Low-politics route to cooperation in South China Sea

Is there a way out of the impasse between the Philippines and China over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal?

The crescendo of power politics is represented by shrill reports of the presence of various ships in the contested area, with almost a daily accounting of how many ships have been added or withdrawn. Then, too, there are reports of Philippine bananas being held in Chinese ports for some reason, and potential travel plans of Chinese tourists to the Philippines being scrapped as a demonstration of displeasure over the standoff.

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Lost in the morass are the non-threatening, low-politics areas of cooperation that have been going on for many years and which may, in the long haul, be the most important components of the relations between the Philippines and China.

Can we simply dismiss the robust interaction and joint medical undertakings being done by Filipino and Chinese scientists in Shanghai and elsewhere in China in search of the cure for cancer? Can we close our eyes to the very active cooperation among our marine scientists, oceanologists, geologists and other scientists as they continue to study the waters called the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), in which coral formations, sea plants and fish species are all part of one ecological whole? And how can China reject the fact that the fish it harvests for its food security spawns in our Palawan waters because of the ambient conditions therein?

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And why have we forgotten about the planned Trans-Asean Gas Pipeline, which aims to link the gas reserves of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand? Isn’t China’s energy needs linked to the vast gas resources of the Asean countries, which will constitute one of the economic foundations of our Free Trade Agreement with China? How can China close its eyes to its uranium needs for its nuclear power plants, which the Philippines can easily supply? And we are not talking yet of our other precious ores, which China needs for its burgeoning requirements as an industrializing nation half of whose population is below 25 years of age.

What about the active cooperation among our Filipino environmental lawyers and their Chinese counterparts who would like to be guided by some of the best environmental laws that we have crafted? What about the needs of China for our accountants whose expertise are well known all over the world as China is being compelled to follow international accountancy and auditing rules?

The list can go on and on.

All of these interactions engender habits of cooperation, which are deeply rooted and which will matter in the medium to long run. We can all argue until we’re blue in the face in every international forum or court of justice, and it is less likely that the sovereignty and territoriality issues will be resolved at all.

Kashmir, Kuriles, Arctic Ocean, Antarctica, Kurdistan, Palestine are just some of the areas where sovereign entities called nation-states contest ownership of and claim jurisdiction over the same piece of land, waters and air space. Throughout history, we have seen how the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 had set the principles of sovereignty and territoriality and decreed these as the fundamental framework for how political entities would henceforth conduct themselves. Looking at the map of present Africa, one is not surprised at how the mindless drawing of straight lines to denote the limits of geography of nascent states and colonially defined territorial boundaries had effectively divided tribes, families, rivers, lakes and mountains with catastrophic results, many of which we continue to witness today.

The continuing rival claims that we see between and among various protagonists and the relentless efforts to denote the limits of one’s national power in terms of specific metes and bounds continue to inform our international politics.

What is to be done?

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I believe both the Philippines and China realize that politics cannot be a zero sum game where one wins and the other loses. Politics must not be a zero sum game where one wins some and the other wins some, too. To me, pursuing the low-politics route to cooperation is the way to go—the ONLY way, in fact, as the alternative may not be acceptable to both parties to the dispute.

Our hope as students of politics is that the continuing low-politics areas of cooperation will increase in level and scope and will ramify or spill over into the high-politics area later, and that the habits of cooperation engendered by the nonpolitical, nonthreatening scientific interactions will serve to overturn the dictum that “might is right.”

After all, the energy, food, and environmental security of one nation cannot be at the expense of the insecurity of the others.

Clarita R. Carlos is a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines and the only woman civilian president of the National Defense College of the Philippines.

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TAGS: China, Clarita R. Carlos, Commentary, Diplomacy, Foreiign Affairs and International Relations, opinion, Philippines, politics, Scarborough Shoal, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea
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