I agree with Senator Imee Marcos, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when she said in a senate hearing last Thursday (8 September 2022) that probably bombarding China with protests is not a good strategy since, as Asians, their “tendency is anti-confrontational.” She is right on point in this regard.
In other words, the western orientation of resolving the country’s differences with China over the South China Sea (SCS) in a direct confrontational manner using “megaphone diplomacy” is not working at all. On the contrary, it complicates matters and irritates the Chinese more, goading and pressing them to adopt a hardline and hardcore position on the issue.
Hence, the direct confrontational and aggressive manner is not the way to go if we want to settle the SCS dispute with China, which by the way, is a small part of the overall bilateral relations between the two countries, yet has been magnified immensely that it overshadows to a greater extent the many tangible benefits that the mutual understanding and friendship between the two countries, which have been forged through time, have made and created.
Indeed, in that senate hearing, Senator Marcos was right on point in asking, “What’s the point of sending hundreds and hundreds of protests with no palpable success?”
To note, based on official records, this year (2022), the Philippines filed 172 diplomatic protests against China already, 48 of which have been filed under the new administration of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr. Last year (2021), the Philippines filed 216 diplomatic protests against China.
But then again, the most relevant question that needs to be asked is whether this strategy is effective. Is this strategy yielding some favorable results for the country, or it’s going nowhere? Is it time to change the approach and strategy or not?
Time to Change Approach
The need for a strategy shift in resolving differences with China over the SCS is of the essence and imperative in the ever-changing, volatile, and challenging geopolitical realities of the Asia Pacific/Indo-Pacific region. In doing so, time is of the essence.
However, in the process of a strategy shift, specific fundamental points should be factored in and given utmost contemplation.
The first consideration is to bear in mind that the shift in strategy or approach has to have a long-term perspective filled with goodwill and pragmatism. There should be a long-term plan based on certain concrete objectives that are future-oriented, bearing in mind the bigger picture, and should be aimed at a peaceful and amicable resolution of the country’s dispute with China over the contested SCS without either of the two countries losing face or sacrificing their respective claims and positions.
The second important consideration is moving away from a Western-oriented direct confrontational-megaphone diplomacy/way of resolving or settling disputes toward a more oriental or Asian way of dispute resolution, which puts a premium on the preservation of harmony at all costs, discords are kept lowkey and as much as possible at the minimum, and exchanges between parties are cordial and pleasant.
Third, there should be a clear understanding that the SCS dispute between claimant states, including the Philippines and China, is sensitive and complicated. There is no easy solution to this dispute, and it can’t be resolved overnight. Therefore, the two sides should handle the dispute properly and manage the differences in good faith, with lots of patience, creativity, and goodwill.
Fourth, in shifting strategy, there should be a shift in the mindset from a “winners-takes-all” mentality and attitude toward a more collective outlook. The SCS should be treated as a zone of peace, cooperation, and joint development concerning the two countries’ claims and positions.
What can be done?
Regarding what concrete steps should be taken, both sides should maintain active communication. To enhance mutual understanding and build trust, the Philippines and China should fully leverage the dialogue mechanisms created over the years, including the China-Philippines Foreign Ministry Consultations and the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea. In short, active communication between the two sides is the key.
Also, both sides need to have more dialogues and open conversations at all levels possible. The Philippines should engage China constructively through joint fishery and marine environment management, joint maritime patrol activities, and joint oil and gas exploration. These activities build trust, understanding, and confidence between the two countries and their people.
In the same manner, I agree with Senator Imee Marcos that there’s no harm if the Philippines initiates a Code of Conduct in the SCS among the claimant-states, which include China. This could be faster, more efficient, effective, and less tedious since the claimant states can also build on what has been achieved by the COC on the SCS over time. It will probably hasten the process, given the number of countries involved in the negotiation is fewer. Also, these countries are directly involved in the SCS dispute.
However, one caveat must be considered in the negotiations: countries not parties to the SCS dispute, like the United States, should not be involved, for it will just complicate and muddle the situation.
Likewise, the incumbent Philippine government must be steadfast and exercise firm resolve and political will in pursuing an independent foreign policy.
Most importantly, both sides, the Philippines and China, should actively and firmly stay on the positive side of the bilateral relations between the two countries and must not allow that differences to hijack the flourishing and deepening friendship between the Philippines and China.
Thus, it is crucial and imperative for the two sides to have a consensus in good faith that the SCS dispute is not a stumbling block to the flourishing bilateral relations, friendship, and understanding of the two countries and that the dispute will be handled properly and amicably.