Finding ways to evict China
LESS THAN two weeks after the historic victory of the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute, China successfully repulsed two attempts to obtain a symbolic implementation of the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Last July 14, or two days after the Philippine victory, officials of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) drafted a joint statement on the arbitral decision that invalidated China’s claim on almost the entire South China Sea. But China, acting through Cambodia and Laos, prevented the release of the statement.
Ten days later, on July 24, during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Laos, Asean officials drafted another joint statement of support for the arbitral decision. Acting through Cambodia, China again prevented the release of the statement that mentions the decision.
The Asean joint statements would have amounted to a symbolic implementation of the arbitral decision. Formal recognition of the decision by other states will animate action or actual implementation later on. If other countries do not even speak up to recognize the decision, then it is unlikely that they will take action to assist in its actual implementation. But if they speak in support of the decision, it will be more than likely that they will support some form of action to implement it.
It is true that the rules of the arbitral court do not provide for ways to implement the decision. But in the realm of possibilities, there is a range of actions that are available to countries who are minded to help implement it. This is based on how countries have acted in similar or analogous international conflicts.
One option is military action. We have seen in countries like Syria, Bosnia, Sudan and Kuwait that powerful countries have used military action to assist other nations, and even invade other nations, under the banner of implementing international law.
A second option is economic sanctions. These include restrictions on exports and imports, withdrawal of aid, asset freeze, or outright economic embargo. Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Iran and Venezuela have experienced economic sanctions imposed on them.
A third option is political sanctions. These include travel bans, arms embargo, and cutting of diplomatic relations. South Africa, North Korea and Libya have experienced political sanctions imposed on them.
The use of military action and of economic and political sanctions has been resorted to by the UN Security Council, the European Union and the United States, among others. But what is the likelihood that any of these options will be used to implement the arbitral decision?
There is absolutely no chance for the UN Security Council to adopt any of these three options because China has veto power as a member.
There is also virtually no chance that the United States, European Union and other countries will adopt any of these three options because of the following cocktail of reasons: The economic benefits that other countries derive from China far outweigh whatever gain they will obtain by siding with the Philippines; China has the ability to retaliate with military, economic and political sanctions that can seriously destabilize other countries; and this conflict over sea territory is minor compared to other international conflicts that have resulted in deaths and the exodus of refugees.
If these three options are out of the question, then what’s the use of discussing them? One, it dispels the unrealistic expectation of many Filipinos that countries like the United States will come to the Philippines’ rescue like a knight in shining armor, with planes, warships and soldiers. Two, it tempers any idealistic reliance that our allies will choose friendship over economic benefits. Three, it forces us to channel our energies to efforts that are realistic, pragmatic and long-term in range.
When US Secretary of State John Kerry met with President Duterte last week, he repeated what President Barack Obama and Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, declared in the past: The United States will not interfere in the competing claims of the Philippines and China, and its interest is only to ensure that freedom of navigation is respected in the South China Sea. It is clear that the United States will not use military might, or economic and political sanctions, to help the Philippines recover its sea territory from China.
What the United States has done is to support the Philippines in words. Together with Japan and Australia, it has called on China to abide by the arbitral court’s “final and legally binding” decision.
No similar words of support, much less action, are forthcoming from Asean. Brunei, Cambodia and Laos have declared that the disputes “are not an issue between China and Asean and should not affect China-Asean relations.”
Singapore states that it does “not take sides on the competing territorial claims.” Vietnam “welcomed” the decision but urged peaceful resolution. Malaysia “noted” the decision but urged the parties to “maintain peace.” Indonesia urged “restraint” and “avoidance of military activities.”
These muted reactions are the results of China’s political and economic might.
The Philippines bannered “right is might” when it achieved its arbitration victory. China brandishes “might makes right” when it mutes support for the decision. Both countries will attempt to reconcile “right” and “might” when they sit down to negotiate.
The march of modern history favors “right” over “might,” but it’s a long and bumpy road ahead for the Philippines.
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