President Rodrigo Duterte. CNN file photo
here are those who say that the Philippines never misses an opportunity, to miss an opportunity. Sadly, there may be some truth to that statement. After WWII, the country appeared poised to take the lead in Southeast Asia. Back then, it seemed to have everything going for it. It was more advanced, and richer than most of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Unfortunately, it passed up one opportunity after another, so that today it lags behind many of its neighbors.
And one very big opportunity it recently let slip by was the 2016 decision by the Arbitral Tribunal in the Hague that gave the Philippines a unanimous win versus China. Make no mistake; this was a bold and gutsy move by the United Nations sanctioned court. It stood up to rich and powerful China and told them in no uncertain terms that what they were doing was illegal. The ruling leveled the playing field for small or weak countries that lacked wherewithal to stop the aggression of a powerful neighbor.
At the dawn of this new millennium, the Philippines should have led by example. It should have stood its ground, built a global consensus, and demand that China accept the international court’s ruling. It would have been a victory for the rule of law, and would have brought mankind a step closer to the UN ideal of settling differences through peaceful means, rather than by force.
After WW II, the community of nations formed the UN, and created affiliated international institutions so that disagreements between countries can be settled peacefully instead of by war. UN-member countries then signed on to various international treaties and conventions promising to abide by global rules. This was by no means a new concept. Rather they were the logical result of centuries of effort at instilling peace and order between nations since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.
Both China and the Philippines, like most other countries, are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As signatories, both are bound by all the rules and provisions of UNCLOS. China however, claims historical ownership of most of the South China Sea as delineated by its nine-dash line. It has thus occupied reefs and shoals that should otherwise—by international law—be part of Philippine territory.
Under former President Benigno Aquino III, The Philippines took China to the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague to challenge China’s claim. The court’s unanimous decision on July, 2016, threw out China’s historical claim and sided with the Philippines.
Unfortunately, Rodrigo Duterte the newly elected Philippine president chose instead to appease China instead of demanding that it adhere to the arbitral court’s ruling. Duterte reasons that the Philippines cannot stand up to China militarily.
What Duterte fails to realize is that standing up to China does not mean getting into a shooting war with it. The UN, UNCLOS, the Arbitral Tribunal, and the various global agencies that currently exist are there precisely so that countries should not have to resort to hostilities to settle differences.
If the Philippines had stood its ground, it would likely have been supported by countries around the world. Unfortunately, Duterte took his country in the wrong direction. So much so that China today continues to flex its military might and limits the access of Filipino fishermen to resources that the UN says actually belongs to the Philippines.
Duterte may eventually change his stand and do what’s right. The Philippines is not as weak or helpless as he thinks it is. Duterte should also remember that history is replete with small countries that have stood up to larger stronger ones and prevailed. Take North Vietnam’s conflict with the United States. It prevailed. Vietnam’s total population (both north and south) in the Sixties was less than 40 million. Compare that to the Philippines’ current population of over 100 million. The UK, France, Italy, Canada, and Australia all have populations between 66 million (UK), and 24 million (Australia). In numbers alone, Filipinos have much better odds than the North Vietnamese had when they fought the Americans and won.
Another point to consider is that unlike North Vietnam then, the Philippines has the United Nations on its side. As far as the world is concerned the Philippines is right and China is wrong. The UN tribunal said as much with its unanimous 2016 decision. UN member countries want this matter resolved peacefully and will likely be willing to impose sanctions on China if it uses force. No country can bully or intimidate a weaker neighbor into submission.
In the long term, the Philippines needs to build and strengthen alliances with Japan, Vietnam, and other South China Sea claimants who disagree with China. Then it must expand that group to include as many countries as possible.
Duterte must further show resolve by strengthening the armed forces. South Korea and Singapore currently have a draft, and so should the Philippines. Young men and women, between the ages of 18 and 21 should be required to serve in the military for a specified period of time. Not only will a draft instill much needed discipline among Filipinos, it will also bring Filipinos from all walks of life together, forming a more cohesive society. Duterte will solve his problem with ”tambays” in street corners as well, while beefing up his military.
When China sees that resolve and the alliance of countries lined against it. It may decide that Scarborough Shoal and the other Philippine-owned islands and reefs are simply not worth the cost and abandon its claims. Published 6/28/2018