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Flashpoint Spratlys: Talk About Abrogation and Boycott


Former Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon

To the ordinary man on the street, it must be puzzling to see the frenzy brought about by the issue of the Spratly Islands, a group of tiny islands, sandbars, atolls and reefs that appear and disappear depending on the height of the tides, in the middle of the ocean.

Aside from the distance from civilization, the obviously difficult environment makes it the last place on earth to be considered habitable. One can only wonder why would several countries, one of them a world superpower, try to outdo each other for the right to claim ownership of the specks of land in the vast sea. Aside from the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Viet Nam all have partial full claims over the islands.

The reason, unsurprisingly, is that it’s not the miniscule piece of real estate that attracts these countries but the lure of the profits that it promises due to the reported  huge deposits of oil and natural gas.

Control of the islands also means control of the seas around it, which would grant access to the rich marine resources and abundant fishing grounds that would support the needs of the interested parties and perhaps even beyond.

The history of the Spratlys is rich with incidents of near-clashes and actual skirmishes between the contending parties. Claims of harassment, intimidation, territorial intrusion and incidents of armed confrontation have occurred over the past several decades.

In the 1970s, the Philippines was accused by China of “invading” their territory because  Philippine soldiers reportedly destroyed markers erected by China. In the 1980s, a gunbattle transpired between Chinese forces and Vietnamese troops, wherein the Vietnamese were decimated by the superior Chinese military.

In the 1990s, there were several incidents involving China and the Philippines, which sparked tension between the two countries,  even involving the United States, a Philippine ally.

In 1995, the Chinese brazenly took over Mischief Reef, which is claimed by the Philippines as its own. The Philippines retaliated via the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), to which China responded by agreeing to cease further action that would escalate the tension.

The Philippines, however, was able to accost some Chinese fishing vessels and destroyed Chinese structures.  Such exchanges of intrusions and low level confrontation continued over the following years.

The tension in the Spratly Islands and the strain in Philippines-China relations heightened again in 2009 when the Philippine Congress passed the Philippine Archipelagic Baselines Law which then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed into law on March 10, 2009.

The law was passed for the Philippines to conform to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) which provided the framework  for countries to lay claim to their territories.  A deadline of May 13, 2009 was set by UNCLOS, after which a country may lose an opportunity to have an internationally recognized territorial claim.

As expected, China protested the passage of the law, on the strength of its own claim to practically the entire South China Sea. Vietnam likewise protested. But the Philippines passed a law which is within the parameters of the UNCLOS, therefore, the Philippines is in a good position as far as international law is concerned.

Under the new administration of President Benigno Aquino III, the Spratlys continue to be a sore spot in the PH-China relations, with recent incidents opening up old and probably even new wounds.

The Philippine government said it has evidence that at least six incidents of Chinese incursions since February of 2011. Reportedly, the most serious was the firing of warning shots to scare away Filipino fishermen from Jackson Atoll, which is claimed by the Philippines.

In March, a Philippine research vessel was allegedly harassed by Chinese ships, to which the Armed Forces of the Philippines responded by deploying military aircraft.  A few weeks later, the Philippines complained about Chinese jets entering the country’s airspace.

The Philippines has lodged a complaint before the United Nations, which was downplayed by China.

The Spratlys continue to be an international issue and inevitably, it also ignited tempers and emotions domestically. Unfortunately, while it touched a raw nationalistic nerve among Filipinos, reactions were as disunited as a choir of people of different nationalities singing their national anthems simultaneously.

It was a natural course of action for the Philippines to look towards its ally, the United States of America, given that there is an existing Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries.

But when a US Embassy spokesperson said that the United States will not take sides in the territorial dispute , some politicians quickly called for the abrogation of the Mutual Defense Treaty . Some may have made that call due to veiled political agenda, while others may have called for the abrogation out of a lack of understanding of geopolitical and security issues. But definitely, the call sounded like nationalistic fervor.

In my view, the call seemed like a failure to understand the statement of the embassy official, which said, “The US does not take sides in regional territorial disputes.”

This meant that the United States will not take sides in the discussion on the claims of the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei over the Spratly Islands. It is the correct posture for them to take since they are not direct parties to the issue.

The Mutual Defense Treaty refers to “armed attack” as the trigger for the invocation of the assistance of either parties. At this point, it is clearly not yet appropriate for the MDT to be put into action to address the current issue of the Spratlys.

It is correct for the Philippines to move with prudence and not be quick to invoke the MDT.

In fact, the treaty itself in Article I puts the primacy of diplomacy over military action : “The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purpose of the United Nations.”

It is irresponsible to make the call for the abrogation of the MDT without presenting an alternative plan to build up the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

That was the biggest oversight of government after bravely booting out the American bases in Clark and Subic. It failed to build up the AFP and in fact, even let it go into a downward spiral as far as capability is concerned.

This is not to say that we should forever be dependent on the United States for hand- me-downs. But this is to stress that nationalism isn’t just about shunning the foreigners but also beefing up the Philippines.

If we want complete independence from the US military, we must invest in our armed forces. Until we are able to stand and defend ourselves, we have no choice but to seek strength from allies.

From another side, some quarters called for a boycott of Chinese goods as a form of protest against Chinese arrogance in the Spratlys and in the media (the Chinese ambassador “telling off” the Filipinos in an interview). There is no doubt that we should express our outrage at the incursions in what we claim to be our territories and more so, at the offensive gall of the ambassador talking down to us while standing on what is undisputedly Philippine soil.

But while the proposal is indeed propped up by the spirit of nationalism, it is pulled down by its impracticality. How can a country which has an insignificant, if not absent, manufacturing sector afford a boycott of products of the world’s number one manufacturer?

A Philippine boycott of Chinese goods will not have a dent on the Chinese economy  and it would just be brushed aside with impunity by the Chinese. Losing the Philippine market is insignificant to them compared to the gain they will have if they are able to fortify their claim over the Spratlys.

On the other hand, a boycott will have negative effects on the Philippines economically. It will only serve as a symbolic protest which may even backfire on us.

Instead of symbolic steps, we might as well focus on efforts that will give us a net positive result. Considering the circumstances, the best strategy is to use diplomacy and involve the international community.

While we are no match to China militarily, their armed might is actually tied down by the scrutiny of the civilized family of nations. As long as we do not initiate an armed conflict or engage in a shooting exchange, we can be sure that China’s military might will be held at bay. If they fail to control themselves, then the international community will surely have a moral basis to side with the Philippines.

In the use of diplomacy, we must involve the countries in the region, because it is also in their best interest for peace to prevail in this part of the world. The Philippines’ strength lies in the fact that while we are a small, third world country, we are a noisy bunch, eager to participate in international forums and fight for what we believe is our right.

We must be able to at least get other countries to put pressure on China not to use force, if not to get them to side with the Philippines altogether.

We should espouse the use diplomacy not because we do not have the capability to match the firepower (although we really cannot match China in that respect), but because we are believers in peaceful resolution of disputes.

As mentioned earlier, the Mutual Defense Treaty itself puts peaceful efforts first before the use of force. Our membership in the United Nations is proof that we believe in diplomacy in conflict resolutions. Our being a signatory to the ASEAN+China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is proof that together with other countries in the region, we believe in peaceful means to solve the regional disputes.

It is therefore timely that the Philippines now take the lead in calling and moving for the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (or should it now be West Philippine Sea?).

With tension rising, we can douse the rising temperature in the controversial island group by drawing everyone to the conference table. And we can take the moral high ground by leading the way for a peaceful solution. –


* Republished, with permission, from the author’s blog, The Way It Is.  Read the original post here.


CATEGORY: Defense & Security, Foreign Affairs, Sectors, Voices
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  1. Rvl Gimenez says:

    And so, the US “does not interfere in regional territorial disputes” although it is quick to interfere in the INTERNAL disputes within individual countries such as Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan? Odd.

    And, how does one call US diplomatic efforts in the Israel-Lebanon issue which is as much territorial as it is anything else? Non-interference?

    The US interferes where and when its interests require it and does so in manners that best suit its purposes. It shall refuse to interfere when such does not serve its interests. That, apparently, is the long and short of it.

    To quote Hillel, the great Jew of the first century, BCE, “The rest is commentary.”

    (As I write this, word just got down to me that the US Congress has “de-funded” the US military participation in Libya.)

  2. “conference table?” – that is always an option for a weak nation like RP, because strong nation like china would do it like a bully does. It is simply like giving the Spratlys to China because we cannot defend our territorial claim with military might. U.N., is a sanctuary of powerful nations. The weak got stepped on it by bigger nations. While we still have time, we can kick out our Chinese from the Philippines, otherwise, when a shooting war erups between RP and China, our own chinese brothers will be shooting our back. This is the spill-over reality in this Spratly issue.

  3. oh comm’on cong. biazon, you know better than this issue on abrogation of MTD and nationalism as well as the issue on boycott and international economy. How about discussing also the strategic geopolitical location of RP for global trade? How about the lurking US-China tug-of-war? Well, whether its MDT or China taking over our territory, for me, they are just the same banana – both stepping on our sovereignty.

  4. Hi Ruffy,

    I am your avid follower from Muntinlupa City.

    I agree with your thoughts on this matter, as quoted in your
    comments below:

    “Instead of symbolic steps, we might as well focus on efforts that will give us a net positive result. Considering the circumstances, the best strategy is to use diplomacy and involve the international community.”

    RP must settle this big concern amicably with participation of
    the international community.

    Let us not forego another good resource of gas and oil and
    other beneficial products that Spratly can provide. After Sabah,
    will Spratly come next? and so on.

  5. Diplomacy? It works only among nations that are equal in firepower. Somehow, the Japanese had the fortitude of looking at China the way that it should be looked upon then. That is why the Japanese raped Nanjing and sent 100,000 chinese to the gallows.

    “In July 1937 the Japanese tried once again to extend their territory in China. Chiang resisted, and Japan launched a full-scale offensive (see Second Sino-Japanese War). Chiang’s forces had to abandon Beijing and Tianjin, but his troops held out for three months in Shanghai before retreating to Nanjing. When the Japanese captured Nanjing in December, they went on a rampage for seven weeks, massacring more than 100,000 civilians and fugitive soldiers, raping at least 20,000 women, and laying the city to waste.”

  6. “We should espouse the use diplomacy not because we do not have the capability to match the firepower (although we really cannot match China in that respect), but because we are believers in peaceful resolution of disputes.”

    Wow, Cong. Biazon looks at the problem as it it was just an oratorical contest during high school day foundation. Diplomatic channels will be effective only if the other party can be pressured to accept it because of a threat of a counter-force of the other. There is none that we can mount so China would act like a bully, unrestrained by its greed to look for resources for her teeming billions of hungry people. Despite her economic boom which are apparent only in the big cities, its largely rural landscape are still suffering from poverty like RP.

  7. The Spratlys are just a group of uninhabitable and inauspicious islands, but it may yet be the single most contested piece of territory in the ASEAN now. What is the best approach to the conflict with neighboring China over it? The current war of words may get to be highly incendiary, but can never escalate into shooting war with live ammunitions. Sanity dictates that China though a military superior by leaps and bounds does not mix up with a dwarf like the Philippines. The international order today obviates that. Economic boycott on the other hand is self-defeating and counterproductive for us. There remains one solution: heighten and sharpen the issue of justice against the bullying of a superpower neighbor to draw in other parties and stakeholders and make the moral, political, and economic cost to the bully far outweigh expected gains.

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