The Lessons of Scarborough

Questions arise about whether we have creative policy makers who are focused on the real issues in the disputed areas or inflexible bureaucrats who can only repeat old mantras as their solutions to current issues and problems.

By Ben Lim*
Posted by CenPEG

The day after Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin arrived from Washington, the headlines in most Philippine media read: “The United States will not take sides in that nation’s standoff with China at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.” 

This U.S. intransigence has led Senator Joker Arroyo to tell Philippine reporters: "Americans will never move unless it’s their self-interest which is at stake.” And to lament: “This is our misfortune.”

The two secretaries do not have to read academic scholarship to make out that America goes to war, only and only if, it conforms to America’s strategic and economic objectives. China’s claim over the Scarborough Shoal does not threaten America’s paramountcy in the Asia Pacific nor will it impede America’s economic objectives in the region.      

Worse, America’s official refusal to intervene has not only tarnished Secretaries del Rosario and Gazmin’s reputation as PNoy’s most influential cabinet secretaries with the Obama administration. It has been their repeated mantras that America would come to our rescue whenever China threatens the Philippine security. It was this ironclad confidence that led the Philippine Navy to attempt to arrest the Chinese fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal that brought about this controversy.  

Let us hope that the two secretaries have learned from America’s announced neutrality how much China’s rise and role in the new world order has changed America’s appraisal of China’s strength in the Asia Pacific region and that America’s estimate of the role of the Philippines in America’s scheme of things in the region has diminished. Secretary del Rosario has been consigned to a minor position as America’s Filipino agent promoting the American line to our ASEAN partners. And in the two ASEAN Summits at Indonesia and Cambodia, del Rosario’s sponsorship of America’s policy objectives ended with no agreement from our ASEAN partners.

Continued Philippine currying of favor from the U.S. to resolve the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and not seeking or finding means together with China to resolve differences may well lead to Senator Joker Arroyo’s fear: “that the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal could go the way of Sabah.”

Such controversies and fears are not new. As in the years past, sovereignty claims, had led to disputes, propaganda and counter-propaganda, with each claimant asserting to have more legitimacy than the others.

Records of past controversies have shown that insistence on the issue of sovereignty has impeded progress in the negotiations. Much research, including analyses by some political leaders, academia and commentators, have shown that one sure way to resolve the dispute is to negotiate on the measures to explore, exploit and divide justly the resources in the contested areas among those with overlapping claims.

Indeed given the fact that the primary concern of most claimants is access to these resources for the economic development of their respective countries, their most important objective in negotiations should be the forging of agreements for immediate exploitation and fair division of these resources.

What is going on in the current controversy illustrates dramatically our bullheaded viewpoint, to use coercive procedures, and military hardware which during the latest confrontation at the Scarborough Shoal have shown to have no effect, while endangering our good economic relations with China.

Some claim that the problem is primarily in America’s shift of center of gravity to the region in order to contain China. The U.S. initial strategy has been to use its Cold War allies and to recruit new ones to contain China. It raised issues on unresolved territorial disputes and promises to help the weaker claimants in their disputes with China.

What is not revealed is the other problem that the weaker claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines took to heart America’s promise. More so, with the Philippines, believing that with its Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S., the Philippines will be able to keep the contested territories. 

The real lesson from the current controversy for our policy makers is that when policies are pursued for many years with blind dedication though are notorious to fail in terms of declared objectives, and that other options are likely to be far more effective are brazenly ignored, questions naturally arise about whether we have creative policy makers who are focused on the real issues in the disputed areas or inflexible bureaucrats who can only repeat old mantras as their solutions to current issues and problems.  

It is hoped that the Scarborough Shoal controversy and America’s neutrality will lead the Philippines to rely on itself and to extricate itself from relying on the great powers to resolve its international disputes.

*The author is formerly a UP professor and now a faculty of Ateneo de Manila University. Lim is also a Senior Fellow of CenPEG.

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