The increasing South China Sea tension has been making rounds in social media threads and forums for the past weeks. The issue seemed to eclipse the urgent attention the COVID-19 pandemic has been posing for over a year now.

In a Facebook live discussion hosted by Austin Ong of Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI) on 20 April, joined by Sass Rogando Sasot, an international relations scholar academically trained at Leiden University, The Hague, a former top diplomat in the country with 40 years of experience in international relations Atty. Alberto Encomienda, and George Siy, an advisor in trade negotiations with ASEAN, Japan, and the US who also served as director of IDSI, shared their educational views and rich narratives about issues discombobulating the ever-complex maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS).

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Posted by For the Motherland – Sass Rogando Sasot on Tuesday, April 20, 2021

(Credit: For the Motherland – Sass Rogando Sasot)

The discussion attempted to disentangle the complex historical perspective of the disputed waters in SCS and to provide a seemingly viable position of the Philippines concerning the South China Sea tension buildup. Sass Rogando Sasot convincingly put forward a historical-cultural-core Filipino values-based option she most likely believed one of the courses for the Philippines to take.

Bilateral Diplomacy

The discussion centered and in unison endeavored to convince the audience that bilateral diplomacy could only be the key to harmonize the escalating South China Sea tension between China and the Philippines in a maritime dispute.

As bilateral diplomacy is both a conceptual and functional approach, it could be as good as finding the “common ground” to build up confidence, credibility, and understanding among other things needed to successfully carry out such diplomatic action. So bookish on one hand and too predictable on the other hand. For the Philippines to take this course is playing safe providing China a more viable recourse prompting the Philippines’ interest inferior.

On the other hand, considering the cultural-core Filipino values-based approach as an ingredient to bilateral diplomacy to at least minimize stirring the pot in SCS is as good as keeping the Philippines subservient to China—a no oxymoron as being a little sister to Uncle Sam.

Arbitration Award, UN Resolution: As Diplomatic Leverage

Other personalities like the UP law professor Jay Batongbacal most likely believed that the SCS arbitration award would be the Philippines’ “main source of political and diplomatic leverage” in the South China Sea tension buildup.

During the online Philippine Bar Association Talk on 30 April 2021, Atty. Batongbacal raised the question (02:06:56) about the impact of being such a “defeatist attitude” in a sense by simply ignoring the 2016 arbitration award and just negotiating with China.

On the South China Sea tension Jay Batongbacal most likely believed that the SCS arbitration award is the Philippines' main source of diplomatic leverage.
A screenshot of Atty. Jay’s status on his Facebook account.

On the other hand, the former Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio profusely believed that a United Nations (UN) resolution favoring the Philippines would be a “huge victory” as he said the world community is behind us as it strengthens PH position in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) dispute.

On the South China Sea tension former Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio most likely believed that a UN resolution could be a "huge victory."
South China Sea tension buildup: What course should PH take besides diplomacy?
A post screenshot from Anna Malindog-Uy Facebook account.

Respectfully, these legal luminaries’ thinking and belief in attempting to resolve the escalating South China Sea tension is analytically a misnomer. It is simply chaotic.

Among the options, bilateral diplomacy is highly likely viable when considering the amount of price to pay when all else fails. But what if bilateral diplomacy fails? Or what if the position and interest of the Philippines in such diplomatic action comes at a disadvantageous end?

Chess Game Diplomacy Approach

Geopolitics and international law could be the two major hurdles in international relations. These give birth to multidimensional challenges such as security and sovereignty. While diplomacy is the best option for any dispute in international relations, the same option serves as a futile action as far as interest is concerned.

For example, between China and the Philippines in a maritime dispute in SCS, finding a common ground is already a challenge for PH while maintaining its interest in the disputed islands in WPS that are also intersecting or adjacent to China’s contested waters and islands in SCS.

For bilateral diplomacy to work, one party has to sacrifice something as part of finding a common ground. In the case of the China-PH dispute, it seems that both parties have no in common to sacrifice with their interests—China’s historical claim within its nine-dash line and the Philippines’ ego to set aside the 2016 SCS arbitration award.

In all respects, China has manifold advantages over the Philippines. For the Philippines to take a bilateral diplomacy approach is losing in toto.  For the Philippines to take the assertive diplomacy approach based on the 2016 SCS arbitration award or escalate it to the United Nations is losing big time with a price PH could never recover. But finding a ground where PH could stand convincingly to put China into checkmate, would rather be the best option.

Bilateral diplomacy isn’t only about finding the “common ground” to leverage it in a dispute. But it is also about finding the “best ground” to put into checkmate. The Philippines should have been started evaluating its faintest advantages over China and tried to find out from these which could be the best weapon to leverage it. In stark contrast to what has been so obvious to fail there also comes the sharpest subtlety to win. ▲


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