Dear Digong: Let’s leverage our West Philippine Sea arbitration case


During the latest edition of Shangri-La Dialogue, which gathers defense ministers and leading experts from around the world in Singapore annually, I couldn’t but not notice that the Philippines’ arbitration case against China was a major theme in formal and informal exchanges among participants.

Though we got among the weakest armed forces in Southeast Asia, and feature among the poorer nations in the world, the Aquino administration’s decision to take China to international court has put the country in the international spotlight. Seldom do mid-sized nations gain so much global attention and sympathy. The arbitration case, which is expected to finalize in coming weeks and produce a largely unfavorable outcome for China, is viewed as a classic ‘David vs. Goliath’ showdown by much of the international community.

By skillfully repackaging our case as one of sovereign rights and maritime entitlement claims – rather than sovereign claims, which transcends the mandate of the UNCLOS – we have, thankfully, overcome both jurisdictional and admissibility hurdles. Through our arbitration case, we have rallied the international community to our cause. But this is more than just a moral issue and empty rhetoric. There are significant strategic implications too.

The arbitration case, as I explained in an earlier piece, provides a tangible, concrete legal basis for major global powers to push back against China’s purported plans to turn the West Philippine Sea into their blue “national soil”. No less than Japan, Asia’s sleeping giant, is looking forward to a favorable arbitration verdict that may provide the legal green light to deploy Maritime Self Dense Forces – Asia’s most advanced naval force – to join American-led Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the West Philippine Sea.

Other major powers, from France to India and Britain, may also follow suit. Over the past year, a growing number of countries have come to support the Philippines’ arbitration case. All the members of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized powers, Australia, and almost all relevant players in the region have openly or indirectly expressed their support.

In fact, Indonesia and Vietnam, which are observers at the Philippine-initiated arbitration proceedings, have even gone so far as threatening a similar action against China, which has stepped up its fishing activities and para-military patrols far into Vietnamese, Malaysia, and Indonesian waters. In short, the Philippines is not alone. Others are following us, not the other way around.

Some would even go so far as stating that we are now the de facto leaders of an emerging coalition to pressure China into following prevailing international law and question the validity of its expansive claims, which are based on dubious historical arguments. No wonder then, China is in a state of panic, and is calling on the incoming Duterte administration to drop the case as a precondition for bilateral engagement.

A panicked China has lashed out at the arbitration proceedings and in a comically desperate fashion has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the arbitration body by setting up its own international courts and rallying up to 40 countries – mostly poor and many landlocked – to question the Philippines’ arbitration maneuver. The arbitration case is the Philippines’ best leverage to exact concessions from China. Without the arbitration case, there is little reason for China to make any reasonable compromise. This is the geopolitical reality.