The Philippines’ Internal War Over the South China Sea: Idealists vs Realists


A recent poll purports to show that there is a huge domestic opposition to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “soft” approach to China supposedly gathering steam. If this is an accurate assessment of the “will of the majority” — and some say it is not — it could force a policy change. But what are the proposed alternatives and the likely results of implementing them?

The Philippines, under then President Benigno Aquino III, brought the legal issues generated by China’s competing claims in the South China Sea before an international arbitration panel set up under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In July 2016, the panel ruled overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favor.

However, then newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly pivoted Philippine foreign policy away from the US and towards China. Duterte did not try to take immediate advantage of the panel’s ruling and instead forged a positive relationship with China gaining its potential economic largesse. But this policy shift has outraged international and domestic legal idealists as well as Philippine Americanophiles and self-styled “patriots,” sparking bitter opposition to this policy and generating a deeply polarizing domestic dispute.

According to the July 2016 arbitration decision, China’s nine-dash line historic claim to a large part of the South China Sea and its resources is not consonant with UNCLOS and thus legally invalid. This means that the resources within the Philippines’ claimed maritime zones are its alone.

But China disagrees. It refused to participate in the arbitral proceedings or to accept the result. That means that China’s ambiguous claims to the area and the features and resources within it still stand. Moreover, it has made clear that it will go to the mat over them — against the Philippines and others that dare to challenge it militarily. In sum, China — like other big powers before it — is demonstrating that it can and will continue to defy international law and “get away with it.” This is the reality.

Duterte foresaw the likely dire consequences of immediately pressing the issue and decided the costs to the Philippines and the Filipino people would far outweigh the more theoretical benefits. He likely reckoned that the Philippines’ future lies in Asia, that the Philippines is militarily weak, that China is militarily and economically very powerful, and that no country — including its ally the US — is likely to physically come to its assistance against China. Moreover, Duterte may have calculated that the US needed the Philippines as a base for power projection, resupply and maintenance of its warships and planes as well as rest and recuperation for their crews. According to this theory, he knew he had some leeway with the US even if he turned diplomatically and economically toward China.

So, he decided to temporarily set aside the arbitral decision and seek an interim practical compromise. He is trying to negotiate shared access to the resources. The result so far has been continued access to most of its fisheries for Filipino fishermen and the possibility of “joint development” of any oil and gas. Meanwhile his administration has continued to protest China’s actions diplomatically. Perhaps it does so too quietly or meekly for the pride of the purists in the opposition. Nevertheless, these protests do demonstrate that the Philippines has not legally acquiesced to China’s claims nor “abandoned” the arbitration result. Moreover the arbitration panel’s ruling is now part of international law and is not likely to change easily or quickly despite the paranoia of the opposition.