From low politics to high politics

12:05 AM July 12, 2016

THE RECENT declaration of Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. to “share the use of the constructions in the contested South China Sea” gathered much opprobrium from the public and from the so-called strategists/analysts who believe that they have a better idea of what course of action to take in advance of the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal on the case filed by the Philippines.

But I, for one, think that he has taken the most pragmatic position in regard to the buildup of these artificial islands in the contested seas. If we think that the People’s Republic of China will dismantle those artificial islands at the behest of the international community invoking freedom of navigation and such other international law principles, then we have another think coming.


The issue of territoriality and sovereignty concomitant with the concept of the nation-state has been part of our mythology as human beings. Human nature being what it is, we like to “own” and, maybe, be “owned.” I guess this is the essence of love—to be part of someone or to be part of a collective.

It has been explained to me by my Chinese friends that the concept of Ren, or man, in the Chinese character is “man defined in relation to somebody.” Thus, one is not merely Juan de la Cruz. He is the father of, the brother of, the classmate of, the cousin of, and a neighbor of someone, and a citizen of the Philippines. He cannot be simply defined as Juan de la Cruz. He has to be defined in relation to others.


Without leaning on any of the traditional political theorists, I have come up with my own explanation of why the nation-state persists despite all attempts to remove all the trappings of artificial boundaries through various regional integration schemas. Asean 2020 is at the cusp of such a dream—to create a single market of 640 million consumers and to allow for free movement of goods, services and labor across all 10 jurisdictions.

The nation-state is more likely to persist for a long, long time because it responds to man’s propensity to define his metes and bounds as a person and to define the metes and bounds of his collective personality as a citizen of a nation-state. If the nation-state becomes obsolescent over time, it may be replaced by another political configuration, which may be regional states or small groupings, becoming so because of increasing economic transactions among them.

So, why should the co-sharing suggested by Secretary Yasay be in synchrony with all the foregoing?

States, like human beings, are more likely to cooperate, communicate, collaborate and coordinate over areas of endeavors that are less sensitive, not threatening to their existence, and resulting in the wellbeing of those concerned. We call these areas “low politics” areas. On the other hand, states, like human beings, are less likely to cooperate, communicate, collaborate and coordinate over areas that are sensitive, threatening to their existence, and intruding into things like territory, airspace, land and water, which are parts of things which define their persons or their statehood—a reiteration of the ownership hypothesis suggested earlier. This is the area we label “high politics.”

If we co-share, co-use, and be co-responsible and co-accountable for the utilization of these artificial islands, then we become not only co-decision makers but also co-owners of the same, if at all ownership matters.

Chinese President Xi Jingping has offered several times the “joint use” of these islands. Let us take up his offer and help transform these garrison-like islands into research stations a la Antarctica—another take on “from swords to plowshares”! Let these contested seas be declared a nuclear-weapons-free zone, too!

So, let our marine scientists, our oceanologists, and our archaeologists work together in studying, researching and experimenting on the reefs, sea plants, corals and other features of these seas.


The world’s scientists are governed by canons of research transcending the artificial boundaries of the nation-state. Our scientists neither talk nor care about territory or sovereignty. They talk about scientific undertakings, and these just happen to occur in a laboratory called the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea.

The goodwill generated by continuous cooperation and collaboration on these low-politics areas will go a long way toward engendering goodwill and cementing friendships between and among the peoples of our countries.

Thus, our greatest hope is that over time the low-politics cooperation may ramify or spill over into high-politics cooperation.

By all means, let us engage China on as many levels of low-politics areas of endeavor as we can—research on cancer cure by our medical scientists, joint research and training on mitigating climate change, academic exchanges and joint research of think tanks and the like. They should all be continued, enhanced and made more robust.

China is aspiring to be a superpower. As such, it must abide by international law because in the future, it will also lean on international law to govern the behavior of all states toward itself. And, yes, “might” does not make “right.”

Everyone knows that the territorial and sovereignty issues can never be resolved. No one owns the sea, the land and the sky. They are all the heritage of humankind.


Clarita R. Carlos, PhD, is a retired professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, former president of the National Defense College of the Philippines, and executive director of the StratSearch Foundation Inc.

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TAGS: Arbitral Tribunal, arbitration court, China, Commentary, opinion, South China Sea, The Hague, West Philippine Sea
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