The Debate

Right Vs Might: The Philippines’ Strategy for Confronting China

The Philippines hopes to use international law to gain an advantage in its maritime disputes with China.

Right Vs Might: The Philippines’ Strategy for Confronting China
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Jay Morales, Malacañang Photo Bureau

Last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made headlines when he compared modern-day China-Japan relations to Germany-UK relations just prior to World War II. This week, President of the Philippines Benigno Aquino issued an even sharper warning, comparing China to Hitler’s Germany.

Aquino gave a 90-minute interview to the New York Times at the presidential palace on Tuesday, during which he made his controversial remarks. Aquino asked the international community to support the Philippines’ attempts to have international law arbitrate its maritime disputes with China. Referring to China’s territorial ambitions, Aquino said, “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it — remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”

Under Aquino’s analogy, the Philippines’ equivalent of Sudetenland could be the Scarborough Shoal, the site of a tense stand-off in 2012. In April of that year, the Philippine navy confronted a group of Chinese fishing vessels within the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both China and the Philippines. Chinese marine surveillance vessels blocked the Philippine navy from arresting the Chinese fishermen, who were suspected of poaching. After a months-long standoff, the Philippine boats eventually left the region — while the Chinese vessels remained, in what many saw as a de facto transfer of sovereignty.

Aquino’s pitch to the international community is different than similar wars for public opinion being waged by China and Japan in their separate dispute. Note that, for Aquino, “the world has to say” enough is enough (emphasis added) — because the Philippines is not capable of making such a declaration stick on its own. For the Philippines, resisting China militarily is simply not an option at this point. Aquino has tried to upgrade the Philippines’ military capabilities, and is trying to close a deal to allow more U.S. troops to rotate through the Philippines. However, he also understands that the Philippines’ best (and probably only) chance of coming out victorious in its territorial disputes is to appeal to international law.

As a result, the Philippines have been one of the most active countries in seeking international or multilateral arbitration of the maritime disputes. The Philippines, along with Vietnam and the U.S., have tried to push for a code of conduct on the South China Sea to be approved by ASEAN. Last year, the Philippines officially submitted a request for United Nations arbitration to help decide the disputes. In December, China declined to take part in the arbitration process as expected. The arbitration panel is still required to issue a ruling, which China will likely ignore. Still, though the ruling is unenforceable, the Philippines expects the UN’s decision to increase the political pressure on Beijing.

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And, like Czechoslovakia, external political pressure is one of the only weapons Manila can bring to bear in its dispute with Beijing. China “may have the might, but that does not necessarily make you right,” Aquino said in his interview with the Times. Recognizing that military upgrades are unlikely to make a substantial difference in the overall balance of power, Aquino has largely placed his chips on appealing to the “right” to overcome Beijing’s “might.”

Unfortunately for Aquino, the chance of the international system taking effective action in the maritime disputes is incredibly small. ASEAN has already shown itself to be a house divided when it comes to the disputes, meaning a unified stance on a code of conduct is all but impossible. As for the UN, that could easily turn into a lose-lose scenario for the Philippines. Should China win the dispute (unlikely, since they refused to participate), it would obviously be a huge blow. But even if the Philippines are awarded a legal victory, it’s going to be a hollow one. Chinese foreign policy expert Shen Dingli of Fudan University told South China Morning Post that China is likely to withdraw from UNCLOS rather than accepting a judgment that runs contrary to its interests.

The international system simply isn’t strong enough or respected enough to force a powerful nation to comply with its rules (something the United States demonstrated with its 2003 invasion of Iraq). China has already decided that it will not participate in multilateral negotiations over its territorial disputes, and there’s no indication that Beijing has changed its thinking on the issue. China seems out to prove that might does, in fact, equal right. In widely quoted remarks regarding the maritime disputes at the 2010 ASEAN Security Forum, then-Foreign Minister (and current State Councilor) Yang Jiechi allegedly said “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” This attitude towards regional affairs doesn’t bode well for the Philippines, or the other “small countries” that have disputes with China.