Taking on the dragon
THE REACTIONS of China and the Philippines to the recent ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea is a study on how starkly different the two countries are as cultures.
Quite predictably, China assailed the ruling, angrily taking issue with the PCA judgment that it has no legal basis for claiming historic rights over vast swaths of the disputed sea. The ruling, according to China’s official mouthpieces, is “null and void, and has no binding force.” In the face of international pressure to respect the ruling, it has made clear that “China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea shall under no circumstances be affected by those awards.”
On the other hand, the Philippines, through its Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, was curiously guarded and cautious in its victory, and appealed for “restraint and sobriety.”
What cultural subtexts account for this widely divergent responses?
The two countries’ behavior can be explained by the obvious economic interests at stake, particularly for China. The contested area is rich in oil and natural gas deposits, something that China desperately wants for its huge industrial needs and drive for economic supremacy. The Philippines is treading softly, having neither the maritime muscle to defend its fishing grounds nor the technological resources to make much of the waters that it has now reclaimed.
But there are cultural elements in these exchanges that need to be closely watched.
One is the Chinese concern for “face.” It is important to remember that China is at a stage of reasserting itself as a global power after centuries of internal turmoil and humiliation before western powers. It is very possible that part of its belligerence against the Philippines in taking this case to the PCA has to do with its loss of face in the aftermath of the ruling. Its continuing intransigence and refusal to abide by the ruling may be a kind of face-saving mechanism, apart from the potential economic loss. It is quite an embarrassment for an emergent superpower to be so publicly thwarted on its way to hegemony by such a small nation as the Philippines.
Related to this is the preference for back-channel negotiations, a very Asian way of resolving disputes. China has repeatedly reiterated that it wants bilateral talks with the Philippines and other claimants. The Duterte administration has indicated willingness to do bilateral negotiations.
It may be asked: Is this merely a tactical move or a genuine function of what a Philippine maritime official once described as “the Asian way”? (This was what the former maritime chief said: “Negotiating and seeking consensus…. It’s the Asian way.”)
It could be both, of course.
It was reported that early in the arbitration process, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom requested a meeting with the president of the PCA, a lobbying move behind the scenes that was sensitively but firmly rebuffed. All the while during this time, China was publicly saying that the tribunal had no jurisdiction over the case and that it would snub the proceedings.
We need to always bear in mind that China has so far mostly behaved insincerely. It needs noting that past negotiations with China over the seizure of the Scarborough Shoal only led to dead ends. The United States had brokered an agreement that both countries would withdraw from the disputed waters, but China did not fulfill its end of the bargain. This left the Aquino administration with no other recourse but to submit the Philippine case for arbitration in The Hague.
The Aquino administration has shown that given some gumption and painstaking homework—it took some 5,000 documents to prove our case—we can take on the dragon. The power relations are certainly asymmetrical, but we have shown that the dragon has a soft underside. While “might is right” is a tenet for those who still think that the high seas are fair game for piratical powers, sometimes right can be might, particularly when there is growing global consensus over a universal “commons,” where all are made subject to the civilizational norms current in our time.
Given our limitations, it is certainly good strategy not to engage a big power in open conflict, such as what the Duterte administration is doing. It is a Filipino thing to display humility—especially in victory—and to make pasintabi and not to press too hard when pushing an obvious advantage. But we should take care that this core characteristic of Filipino culture does not morph into spineless capitulation. It is a very fine thing that we are willing to accommodate, to not gloat over victory, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes out of empathy and a delicate concern for the other’s “face.” However, this does not mean surrender of our right to define the boundaries within which a principled compromise can take place.
Secretary Yasay is right in refusing to negotiate outside the frame of the PCA ruling. In dictating the terms in which the talks can happen, China is showing signs of being, again, that ancient dragon breathing fire and threatening to swallow the sun. It is back to its Middle Kingdom syndrome—the ethnocentric sense that it is at the center of the world.
Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has suggested that there may be other, creative ways of enforcing the ruling. We can push the frontiers of international law, as we have begun in this case. In stubbornly refusing compliance, China risks being seen as a big bully in the Asean neighborhood, at a time when a rules-based global order is gaining traction.
Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
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