In defending his policy of appeasing China, President Duterte likes to say that we could go to war with our giant neighbor to the north over our territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but many Filipinos would surely die and we would most likely lose the war against a far superior force.
Mr. Duterte’s protestations usually follow criticism of his administration’s failure to raise the alarm over Chinese actions, including the reported installation of missile defense systems on a reef claimed by the Philippines, and its refusal to demand immediate Chinese compliance with a 2016 arbitration ruling that has invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and upheld Manila’s sovereign rights to exploit resources in vast stretches of water off its western coast—an area we refer to as the West Philippine Sea.
“I cannot afford at this time to go to war,” the President said during a speech earlier this month on the 120th anniversary of the Philippine Navy.
“I cannot go into a battle which I cannot win and would only result in destruction for our armed forces. I really want to do something to assert [our sovereignty]… [But] in my own estimation, it would be a great loss to the nation, and probably we will end up losing a war. All of these things I want to be made known to you. Whether you accept it or not, that’s the reality on the ground.”
We completely agree with the President. War is certainly not an option, given the high price it would extract—and a constitutional provision that renounces war as an instrument of national policy.
Where we differ from the President is his implication that we must go to war to stand up for our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea.
Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, who was part of the Philippine delegation that successfully argued the country’s case before the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, says there are many avenues open to the country that do not include war. These include filing a strong, diplomatic protest just to remind the world that we have not forsaken our claim to the West Philippine Sea or that we accept China’s outrageous territorial overreach. We can also reach out to and cooperate with other South China Sea claimants, and pursue a diplomatic solution in the United Nations General Assembly.
Then, of course, there is the UN tribunal ruling in our favor.
Up until now, President Duterte has spoken very little of the tribunal’s ruling that invalidates China’s claims and upholds the Philippines’ sovereign rights. He has not used it openly in talks with Beijing, and barely mentioned it when the ruling was first handed down.
Has the President put the document in his back pocket, ready for use at some opportune time?
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano bristles when critics accuse his department of doing nothing about Chinese expansionism, saying many diplomatic initiatives are done in secret, behind closed doors.
We certainly hope that these “secret” initiatives pay off—before we lose all our territory in the West Philippine Sea in the name of friendly relations with Beijing.