Unity against coercion
There can be no discounting the importance of the challenges that confront Southeast Asia today. This week, as Asean leaders converge in Manila for the 30th Asean Summit; the evolving difficulties in the South China Sea will unavoidably be in the backdrop. The report that the Chinese Coast Guard fired shots at Filipino fishermen in the Spratlys, if validated, shows that coercion is alive and well in the South China Sea disputes.
Confident as we are in the promise of friendly ties, the fruits of cooperation can only be reaped if the parties in the disputes do their share to avoid conduct that escalates tensions. We have an equal responsibility in maintaining the stability of the region: exercising restraint, upholding our commitments, following the law, and, always, acting in good faith. So far, the Philippines has done its part vis-à-vis these measures.
In addition to working for the overall principle of maintaining peace, many of us also ask about the quality of the peace that is achieved. A peace that comes from a policy of silent acquiescence, that reflects only a political desire for friendship and not the strategic protection of our patrimony, is not the peace that we should be promoting. Moreover, there is more at stake than simple economic exchange; at stake is the law that responsible countries follow and the overarching system that promotes mutual respect between states.
Incidents that show one nation scaring us away from our resources should be our greatest concern. Coercion is a typical tactic of power relations — the resort of those who do not have the law on their side. Worse, such incidents are used to build a specter of war in our minds, to frighten us from standing on the universal principles that must guide us forward. Neither Southeast Asia nor China wants war, and none of us can afford it. War is not on the cards, but if enough people pretend it is, that can be used to rationalize our silence. This is a tragic submission to coercion.
As chair of Asean in its 50th year, the Philippines has a unique opportunity to turn the spotlight on Southeast Asia’s most pressing challenges. No stranger to the difficulties in the South China Sea, the Philippines is seeing new evolutions to its trials. In light of these, the Philippines must continue to take pains to uphold its sovereign rights and defend its national interests against unlawful or unilateral action.
Nine months after the country’s success at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the government has taken on the task of working with fellow claimants and Asean members to finalize a framework for the long-awaited Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Thus far, however, the administration has not taken the opportunity to reaffirm the award or address its significance to the region and the rules-based order from which Southeast Asia has benefited.
When the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued its ruling, the award was not made to our administration; it was made to this country and its people. It is not something to “move on” from; it is something to celebrate and use as leverage for the region as a whole. On the matter of the award, no country can stand more firmly on this than we can. Moreover, as chair of Asean this year, no country can show more leadership than we can. We must ensure that the award is not only acknowledged but also integrated in and married with the principles that will be included in the framework Code of Conduct.
As Asean leaders descend on Manila this week, the best that they can give us is a sign of their unity on the future of Southeast Asia. The whole of the region must be united in speaking up about these challenges, not in burying our heads in the sand. Our hope is that in the coming weeks and months, the whole of the region can unite in finding a constructive way forward. This way must insist against coercion, against unlawful action, against militarization, against unilateralism, and against a form of international relations that undermines the shared interests of our Southeast Asian nations.
Dindo Manhit is president of Stratbase ADR Institute.
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