New Leaders Forum

The West Philippine Sea?

The Diplomat speaks with Walden Bello about China, the U.S. role in Asia and renaming the South China Sea.

The West Philippine Sea?
Credit: Marcello Casal Jr. / Agência Brasil

New Leaders Forum contributor Javad Heydarian speaks with Right Livelihood Award winner Walden Bello about China, the U.S. role in Asia and his call for the renaming of the South China Sea.

In light of China’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric and recent incursions in the South China Sea, you were among the first leading Filipino figures to call for a more “assertive” position by the Philippine government by drafting a resolution that called upon the executive branch to rename the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea.” Was this proposal more of a symbolic gesture, or a tactical move to strengthen our claims in the Spratly islands?

Of course, the primary battle was at the politico-psychological level. If you keep on calling a site the South China Sea, it subliminally connotes some kind of “possession” by China.  This is in light of the fact that often times our actions and thoughts are guided and shaped by forces that operate on the subliminal level. For us Filipinos, calling the area the West Philippine Sea marks a subliminal paradigm change. Suddenly the name that always carried China is now changed. This was a psychological blow to China.

Our proposal was also symbolic. It was meant to show to the world that our claims to the Spratly Islands are legitimate. There was also a tactical-legalistic dimension to our proposal, in terms of advancing our legitimate claims. There would be an impact in terms of advancing the legality of our claims to parts of the Spratly Islands and our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which we are entitled to based on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Did the terms West Philippine Sea carry any specific spatial demarcation or geographical specificity? Why did you choose to name the area after the Philippines when there are other claimant countries aside from China?

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

We didn’t make any clear demarcations. The resolution wasn’t meant to connote a specific territorial boundary. We wanted it just to reflect that this wasn’t China’s sea. We are by no means fixed with regards to our attitude to the name. We are open to multilateral arrangements and diplomatic solution. We are even open to calling it the Southeast Asia Sea or ASEAN Sea or what have you. Our proposal was at most a symbolic and politico-psychological move.

Earlier this year, you led the so-called “peace and sovereignty mission,” composed of congressional delegations, government officials, media, and members of the armed forces, in the Spratly islands, despite vehement opposition from Beijing. What was your primary objective in organizing this mission? In your opinion, to what extent was the mission successful? And, to what degree do you think that the mission reflected greater public sentiment?

Firstly, I think the mission reflected tremendous public sentiment. I think there’s no doubt in Filipino minds that we have rightful claims in the area. Second, we wanted to support our government stance that we have rightful claims in the Spratly Islands, and that we have a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.  Most importantly, we wanted to reflect the country’s desire for a peaceful settlement of the issue. This was the main objective. Going there in a civilian plane and leading a congressional delegation had a very high impact. We wanted to make clear the reality that this isn’t just a diplomatic game, but instead it’s about the interests of the people. We had several audiences, but we definitely wanted to signal to China that they can’t get away with such brash claims that the entire West Philippine Sea belongs to them. We wanted to remind Beijing that it can’t take its neighbors for granted and just advance any claim it wishes to.

This was also an effort on our part, in term of messaging to China, that it should not follow the path of other imperial powers. Unfortunately, in this case, China was threading this path, and we wanted it to move away form that path before it was too late. What we didn’t expect was the vehement Chinese reaction, when they condemned the mission, denying our right to visit the area. This made the issue even bigger and more controversial. I’m very surprised at how China’s diplomacy, known for its sophistication, made a very bad mistake by polarizing the issue further, coming off to the world as a bully.  They were practically telling others where they can and can’t go.

What do you think is the main driver behind China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the area?

There are several explanations. First, geo-economic factors are at play, serving as a motivation for some actors in Beijing to think that given China’s economic trajectory – and all the needs of the country to reach developed country status – they need to secure as many resources as possible, particularly in resource-rich areas, such as the West Philippine Sea, which are adjacent to the mainland. So it’s basically about locking up necessary resources to keep up the economic push.

Another explanation is that since China has achieved the first stage of economic modernization, namely the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, it has entered into a post-Deng period of “national assertiveness” in both the military and diplomatic realms. Third, China is developing its navy, and the navy has been aggressively espousing its bureaucratic interests at the expense of other branches of the military, by emphasizing China’s need to assert itself in adjacent maritime waters. This is, after all, about China’s long-term bid to match U.S. supremacy in global waters.

The three factors are interrelated explanations. I think all three are functioning here to a certain degree. Does this mean China is moving onto an imperial path? I don’t think so, but there’s a danger of it happening. Yet the cooler heads and more strategic minds could still prevent this.

What was your impression when the Department for Foreign Affairs and the armed forces decided to formally adopt your proposal to rename the disputed waters as the “West Philippine Sea”? Do you think this was a reflection of a renewed strategic posturing by the Philippine state, or more of a symbolic move to stoke brewing nationalist sentiment among the Filipino populace?

I think they were getting worried about Chinese incursions, and how they have been harassing our fishing boats and exploratory ships, preventing them from navigating the area. Perhaps they weren’t expecting our proposal to come up. I remember my earlier conversations with Department of Foreign Affairs people, who focused on territorial disputes in the area. They were very excited about the possibility of our proposal coming out. They reacted very positively and said our idea is very good. In light of our weak military capabilities, the resolution provided a symbolic counter-attack, which was very effective. They realized how powerful “discourse” is. People realized that discourse was power. So our proposal carried immense tactical and symbolic implications, which were welcomed by the executive branch as well as the country’s armed forces.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

To what degree do you think America’s apparent decline is influencing China’s regional behavior? Is China exploiting a perceived shift in the global balance of power?

There’s a growing recognition that the U.S. has overextended its strategic reach, while China has risen to become the world’s second largest economy. Of course, it’s just a matter of time before China becomes the world’s preeminent economic power. Cognizant of America’s relative decline, and confident of China’s steady rise, it comes as no surprise if some hawks in Beijing and the People’s Liberation Army have this increasing feeling that China must have it’s place in the sun.

However, the trend towards greater assertiveness isn’t irreversible. There’s nothing inevitable with respect to China’s behavior. Surely, China can remain rational and calculated in its external behavior? In my opinion, China’s increasing assertiveness should be seen from a more structural, rather than ideological, point of view. The country’s resource-intensive export-oriented model of development has placed immense pressure on the state to secure as much in raw materials – from hydrocarbon resources to minerals and agricultural products – as possible to sustain its current pace of growth. Unless China makes a decisive shift towards a more stable and tempered form of domestic market oriented model of development, the Chinese state will always feel the compulsion to secure strategic natural resources at any cost. Therefore, it’s very important for China to focus on re-structuring its current model of development, which relies heavily on resource-import and energy-intensive production.

What’s your impression of the Obama administration’s apparent “re-focus” or “re-engagement” with the Asia-Pacific region? This was very explicit in Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy article, ‘America’s Pacific Century,’ which underlined America’s commitment to remain as an anchor of stability and prosperity in the trans-Pacific region. Strategically, do you think that this policy of “re-engagement” is simply a veiled attempt by Washington to “contain” or constrain China’s continued rise?

It seems a desperate effort by the Obama administration to disentangle from the Middle East in order to have a piece of the Asian miracle. There’s an element of a “scramble” for Asia’s booming markets. But, there’s nothing new with Obama’s policy. President Bill Clinton was among the first leaders to focus his efforts on East Asia, recognizing the region’s economic dynamism and the benefits of greater trans-Pacific economic interaction and cooperation. Despite his initial identification of China as a strategic competitor, the exigencies of the “War on Terror” forced President Bush to increase America’s cooperation with China and other East Asian countries. My sense is that Obama’s re-engagement with Asia is informed by a sense of panic with the pace of China’s rise. There seems to be this lurking nostalgia for containing China. But, China is simply too big and powerful to contain. Any attempt at containment is doomed to fail. Moreover, given how America is still embedded in the Middle East – in light of the Arab uprisings, growing tension with Iran, troubles in Iraq, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan – this shift or re-focus on the Asia-Pacific region would be very difficult.

Let’s talk about strategic options for the Philippines as far as managing territorial conflicts with China are concerned. Do you feel that ASEAN has the institutional requisites and necessary political will to be helpful on this issue? Or do you think that the Philippines should strengthen its alliance with the U.S. as some kind of hedge against Chinese aggression?

I think that there’s a fundamental zero-sum relationship between pursuing multilateral solutions, within the ASEAN framework and under the auspices of the UNCLOS, on the one hand, and creating a bipolar Sino-American face-off by bringing America into the picture, on the other. The Philippine state should choose the multilateral option as its sole strategy in dealing with our disputes in the West Philippine Sea. Sure, ASEAN has its own shortcomings, but serious issues of common concern, such as territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea, should serve as an impetus for greater institutional development.

There are a lot of opportunities and ways by which ASEAN could be more constructive and productive on this particular issue. I believe that it’s time for ASEAN to grow up, develop a collective security arrangement, push forward with the establishment of a regional economic bloc, and deepen its engagements with the region’s civil society. Such institutional growth and regional integration would allow ASEAN to play a more decisive role in managing and resolving territorial conflicts, which threaten regional stability and prosperity.

We already see some positive developments in dealing with disputes in the area. For instance, we have recently witnessed efforts by ASEAN leaders to draft and implement a more binding code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea. Development of appropriate guidelines would be extremely crucial, and such efforts are already underway. Most importantly, ASEAN should use its deepening economic interdependence with China as some sort of leverage to moderate Beijing’s behavior and encourage a more rational and peaceful resolution of conflicts. After all, China relies heavily on Southeast Asian countries’ resources to feed its booming economy and growing needs.

In your opinion, what’s the most optimal and effective solution or approach to our territorial concerns in the region? What sorts of strategies could we adopt to influence China’s behavior? Do we have any leverage on China at all, given its immense economic dominance in Southeast Asia?

In my opinion, there are three things that the Philippines should do. First, we should maintain a strong posture. This means that we have to clearly communicate to Beijing and our partners that while we are committed to a peaceful resolution of the dispute, we are also equally committed to our national territorial integrity. We are willing to use all diplomatic and political tools at our disposal in order to defend and protect our legitimate territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.

Second, we have to emphasize a multilateral settlement of the issue. All claimant countries should come to the table and resolve this issue within a constructive atmosphere, which espouses dialogue, discourages the use of force, adheres to principles of international law, and respects regional norms as enshrined by the ASEAN charter.

Lastly, our allies and us should refrain from bringing America into the picture. This will only lead to a great power conflict, which would compromise our efforts to resolve conflicts in accordance with the principles of international law and regional dialogue.

Walden Bello is the author of more than a dozen books including ‘Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmaking of the American Empire (2005).’ He was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 2003.