Thing with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is that he calls important stuff for what they are. In the case of the Philippines’ claim to vast territories in the South China Sea, Duterte points out that waving a piece of paper at a global power quietly building structures on territory other powers say you have a rightful claim to translates to jack squat in global politics. Filipinos, in fact, should know better. Right in their own backyard is a clear case study of how documents don’t amount to much when dealing with trespassers. It’s called The Squatter Issue. Filipinos can only watch helplessly as their own domestic squatter infestation delivers nothing but grief to land owners, unnecessarily drains public coffers to evict their perpetrators, slows infrastructure development to a crawl, and provides fodder for dishonest communist “activism”.
Wave a title deed or court order to the face of a resident of any one of the Philippines’ vast squatter colonies and you’ll likely get an ice pick through your liver in return. For that matter, try telling off even a chi chi tita who cuts in front of you in a queue for a latte at the local Starbucks and you’re up for a smack across the face with her fake Gucci handbag. Quite ironic that a key bloc within the Opposition — the communists — are big fans of such behaviour. That’s the same sort of reality Duterte describes in the context of the Philippines’ face off with China. “Nag-file sila ng kaso nanalo tayo. Sa totoong buhay, between nation, iyang papel wala iyan… actually… bigay mo sakin iyan sabihin ko ‘P***ng-ina papel lang iyan.’ Itatapon ko iyan sa waste basket,” Duterte said of the ruling. (Translated: “We won in the case filed. In real life, pieces of paper like that don’t matter between nations. Give that piece of paper to me and I’ll say [expletive] that’s just a piece of paper. I’d throw that into the waste basket”)
We pretend that the world has evolved a lot since World War II. The fact is, might continues to determine what is right. The fact that nations that truly matter invest enormous chunks of their budget on their militaries proves this. Does the Philippines matter in that scheme of things? The truth is quite simple. The only reason China is not moving faster and more menacingly than it already is in the South China Sea is because it is wisely considering the possibility of military action by countries like the United States, Japan, and Australia that pose real threats to its goals. The Philippines’ efforts at “diplomacy” are really no more than a quaint side show.
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Weak countries like the Philippines continue to exist only because powerful countries allow them to. A world order supposedly ruled by “international law” is no more than a glossy pretense. No less than the United States itself has, time and again, demonstrated that its own national interests trump United Nations “resolutions” any day. Military might is the only real currency in international “relations”. Filipinos continue to bank on their “friendship” with the United States to back their huffing and puffing over China’s “illegal” incursions but think for a moment if such a “friendship” is really the two-way street Filipinos imagine it to be. Senior Cato Institute fellow Doug Bandow offers some clues on what the Philippines’ “friend” might actually think of its old chum(p) in the Far East…
Indeed, some things never change. One is the limited value of the Philippines as an ally. Its people are friendly and welcoming — and quite pro‐American. But it is a semi‐failed state with a military to match. Manila is a sad example of how the US has picked up the old German habit of allying with the least stable nations possessing the weakest militaries — as Berlin did with Austro‐Hungary in World War I and Italy in World War II.
In the case of Washington the primes useless partner is the Philippines. The relationship wouldn’t matter so much if Manila didn’t expect America to protect not only its home islands, but also every useless piece of rock claimed by the Philippines against China, such as Scarborough Shoal. If Beijing and Washington end up at war — a horrific possibility — the cause should be more serious than the Philippines.
Recall that when the Philippines “won” a “favourable ruling” from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague on the matter of the disputed territories of the South China Sea, there already had been little indication that China would be in any mood to respect the PCA decision. China had remained consistent with that position ever since. In fact, China has, from the very start, asserted that it does not and will not recognise jurisdiction of the The Hague over this matter. Second, it had exhibited a wherewithal to invest heavily in the development of infrastructure and the colonisation of various islands in the disputed territory. And last and most important of all, a wealth of precedents had long been set by other world powers ignoring any rulings by international bodies that are not in their favour.
For that matter, China’s behaviour does not really differ much from world powers that pretend to play ball when it comes to “international law”. Consider the behaviour of other countries that had found themselves in similar circumstances. Graham Allison writing for The Diplomat details the sorry record of the world’s mightiest nations when faced with rulings that their governments perceive to be not aligned with their nation’s sovereign interests. Allison cites how “none of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have ever accepted any international court’s ruling when (in their view) it infringed their sovereignty or national security interests.”
One of the examples he cites is quite confronting…
Anticipating the Court’s ruling in the case brought by the Philippines, UK Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed: “We want to encourage China to be part of that rules-based world. We want to encourage everyone to abide by these adjudications.” Perhaps he had forgotten that just last year the PCA ruled that the UK had violated the Law of the Sea by unilaterally establishing a Marine Protected Area in the Chagos Islands. The British government disregarded the ruling, and the Marine Protected Area remains in place today.
As for the United States, the “ally” the Philippines is counting on to back any next steps it might take following the PCA ruling, our pal lacks any ascendancy to take China to task on the applicable laws in this instance. The PCA in its final decision ruled that the actions of China in the disputed territories of the South China Sea and its so-called “nine-dash line” are “contrary to the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 10 December 1982] and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under the Convention”. Unfortunately, the US has, itself, declined to ratify the UNCLOS and, as such, is not bound by it. On that note, Allison writes, “If China followed that precedent, it could withdraw from the Law of the Sea Treaty altogether – joining the United States as one of the world’s only nations not party to the agreement.”
The truth is quite stark. No great world power has ever become great nor powerful by bowing down to any other power or acceding to any agreement unfavourable to its long-term interests. As such, China’s stance is consistent with historical precedent overall. The Philippines, for its part, would not have found itself in this position had its past governments exercised more foresight surrounding national defense. Instead, successive governments had allowed the Philippines’ once-respectable military capability to degenerate to what is now less than a pale shadow of its former self.
Since the PCA issued its “favourbale” ruling, the Philippines did not squarely face the potentially embarrassing prospect of having to answer the question: What’s Next? This is, perhaps, where the Duterte administration comes from today. Unless Filipinos can answer that question with a firm slam-dunk, any notion of a “win” here can only be token at best. Considering that the Philippines lacks any capability to enforce the PCA ruling, coming up with a response that saves face remains a formidable challenge. If the Opposition think Duterte is not up to the job of coming with such a response, their “thought leaders” should, at the very least, propose one instead of spending their days whining about what is not being done.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.