Why Manila is taking China to tribunal
January 28th, 2013
11:31 AM ET

Why Manila is taking China to tribunal

By Andrew Billo, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Andrew Billo is an assistant director with the Asia Society in New York. The views expressed are his own.

Last week, the Philippines sought to increase pressure on China over its claims in the South China Sea by filing a legal claim against the country under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas. While unprecedented, the Philippines knows that it cannot afford derailing the economic relationship with its third largest trading partner, China, and a verdict – to be issued several years down the line – will ultimately be unenforceable.

Why, then, would the Philippines take this action now, given the irritation it might cause China, risks to economic relations, and the likely minimal impact it will have on altering China’s behavior?

One overarching reason is that in Asia, international relations, at least in the political sphere, are dictated largely by domestic affairs. The legacy of colonialism, and its associated web of international alliances, means that East Asian countries often distrust their neighbors and global powers as well. Distrust has created insular and highly nationalistic policies, a convenient tool for governments wishing to pin domestic governance and economic challenges on the legacy of foreign oppression.

The South China Sea is an ideal distraction from the domestic challenges of Asian countries. The territory is believed to hold significant energy resources, but how much is unknown. At present, countries in the region are sufficiently resourced to maintain their (slowing as they may be) growth trajectories. If domestic energy sources dry up, the challenge of maintaining peace will be even greater.

But the international news media is prematurely hyping the disputes and highlighting the verbal barbs being traded between countries at all levels. It’s true, as The Economist pointed out this past week, that a clash over territory would “imperil the region’s peace and its momentous economic advances.” But this isn’t going to happen, at least not yet.

More from GPS: Why Asia is arguing over its islands

Risking a conflict over the South China Sea area – and the coinciding economic collapse – would pose a greater risk for domestic political leadership, and so naval vessels and troops remain largely stationed at home.

So while a statement released by the Philippines read, “One cannot put a price in the concerted effort of the Filipino people and government in defending our patrimony, territory, national interest and national honor,” the country would be misguided in pursuing anything more than legal action.

In the Philippines, and other countries in the region, the price for maintaining “national honor” with force is prohibitively expensive. Blustering, however, ultimately serves domestic political interests as creating a unified, national stance is quite valuable for political parties wishing to secure their futures in a tenuous political environment.

The South China Sea dispute has long evoked nationalist feelings. In 2007, protests over the South China Sea curiously materialized in Vietnam, and then quickly faded. One Sunday in front of the Chinese Embassy and Consulate in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for example, protestors took to the street, a strange sight in Communist controlled Vietnam, where public protest is typically curtailed.

Police stood by, watching the protestors picket, then, like they had been queued to take action from the top, the police quietly shooed the protestors away. It made for a couple of nice snapshots in local and international papers, but none of the protestors objected to putting their placards away.

A week later, the protests seemed to become more organic in nature, as comments labeling China as the oppressor were bandied about the blogosphere, as well as the streets. China objected, but Vietnam’s “crackdown” on the protests seemed almost to have been staged. The protests were a reminder to the Vietnamese people – most of whom have no direct stake with respect to the dispute – about China as the historic aggressor that the Vietnamese military successfully thwarted in 1979.

Fast-forward again to 2013. In 2007, U.S. interests were squarely in the Middle East and South Asia, centered on Iraq and Afghanistan. Interest in the Asia Pacific was being curtailed. Now, the U.S. government’s return to the region further complicates the South China Sea matter, and vexes regional governments unsure of what lengths the U.S. would take in order to stand up for its regional allies. Is America willing to step up and intervene on any of the bilateral disputes, and will U.S. ships in the region act as a stabilizing force?

But ultimately it is nationalist forces within the most vociferous claimant countries of the Philippines, Vietnam and China that can be blamed most for present tensions for three reasons.

First, by asserting sovereignty – even if illegitimately – over a disputed area, a government is able to project an image of power and influence that reinforces its authority. Second, the contradictory assertions of sovereignty by the various claimants help to create an “enemy” that governments can cast as a scapegoat for certain domestic issues and deflect hostility toward. This also engenders greater appreciation for those in office, as it creates a situation that encourages citizens to rely on their governments for protection. Third, the contentious claims regarding the South China Sea shift focus in the direction of international problems and away from domestic ones.

Despite nationalism’s propensity for polarizing states, entering into sustained military conflict would undermine these governments’ ability to fulfill societal demands for economic growth, institutions, and security as described above. Protracted military conflict is unlikely owing to the financial costs and risks to property and life. For this reason, greater conflict will not emerge in the near-term.

The parties will continue to agree to disagree, but the conflict is  unlikely to escalate much further in the next decade at least.  In the meantime, it is unfortunate that opportunities to cooperate on a range of regional issues will be hampered.

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Topics: Asia • China

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. kkrkstrust

    It is up to global powers to act on china or not. Here also divided rule. what happened to Tibet and occupation of Anarchical pradesh . Every body knows who Pakistan , north Korea acquired nuclear arms and how china supports
    all individual countries opponents for example India. It is for resources – Oil , gas etc. The world should stop double
    standards. Why cant UN put sanctions on China and other Rouge states rather than wars etc.

    January 28, 2013 at 11:40 am | Reply
    • Bill

      I think the U.N. sanctioning China, who is a permanent member of its Security Council, might be a difficult task to accomplish, since it can veto the sanctioning itself.

      January 29, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    "Why Manila is taking Shanghai to tribunal"?

    Well, it is not from their best interest, but they are being told to do so by US.
    The Pinos are very-poor and well known on House-Maids around Middle-East and in the Jewish Households in North-America.

    Sometimes, Some people considered them as Abu-Saiafs (Terrorist groups?) Secret Agents and others considered them Modern-Slaves, but loyal to Jewish.
    I myself, I do not know.

    However, taking the South-Sea matter to the Legal body is smart.
    Probably some Minerals found in that area.

    What will Shanghai will do?
    I have no idea.

    January 28, 2013 at 11:49 am | Reply
    • jay

      Shanghai doesn't have to do anything.

      January 28, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Reply
    • 100% non-ethio

      you really have no idea you racist!

      January 29, 2013 at 2:21 am | Reply
    • Manolonda

      You know what...moron like you who is educated only on how to ***k gays should make a research first about Filipinos. The only problem is you are blind to see Filipinos working as nurses, engineers, animators, teachers, in NASA, in White House, even in foreign government offices even in your country WE ARE THERE TO BUILD...as you can see we can do all kinds of works because we are hard workers...so the next time don't stereotyped us as maids alone...even our maids can teach your kids English language. I give you one more try to bring us down...your so pathetic...

      January 29, 2013 at 4:08 am | Reply
      • Maersk

        Take a good look at this clown. He definitely doesn't look like a maid, he looks like a kwok zucking kwok zucker ready to zuck his uncle's limply kwok.

        January 29, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
      • Bella

        Right on Manolona, to all that doesn't much about Pilipino. Not because we go of our the country and accept maid position that does not mean we're not educated.We are hard working people and take any job regardless ,do you see a lot of us using any food stamp? Nope..because to us that's another form of beggar.. Here in US you can hire someone to work in a Bank with just High school diploma. Not in the Philippines, even the one that work in Mcdonald must be High School Grad and Manager must be college Grad. And Philippines have one of the highest college grad in Asia. Enough said...You wonder why we learn quick when being trainee (coming to US or other country) because we didn't just came out from under any one's Rock..

        January 30, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Gokou

      Lol. Shanghai? Beijing's the capital of China not Shanghai. And Filipinos are not poor. As you can see there are Filipinos in the 50 richest guys. And Abu Sayaff? Lol it's like saying the the entire british are IRA members and the entire Americans are Ku Klux Clan members.

      Please don't share your idiocy with others.

      January 29, 2013 at 4:15 am | Reply
    • drex

      poor...hmmm. for your info we are only second to china in terms of economic growth this year. 7percent my friend and the numbers will continue to rise. lets see 10 years from now. You will bow down to us, PHILIPPINES will rise.

      January 29, 2013 at 4:15 am | Reply
    • ivan

      you are stupid!!

      January 29, 2013 at 4:52 am | Reply
    • razor

      100%Ethio you call it south sea so i assume your from mainland red china, yes there are many maids from the philippines but these maids are paid more than a slave in china making fake iphones, china will work for $1 a day, while filipino maids can earn the same if they stay in the philippines, filipino is just too valuable to just accept $1 a day so they work abroad instead.

      January 29, 2013 at 6:28 am | Reply
    • Cris

      100% ETHIO, look at your face on the mirror. You will see the real poor. Poor in eyesight, poor in mind and in heart. We're glad, proud and blessed that we are Filipinos because we have freedom. Not like yours who has been deprive of life. You even don't know whats the capital of China. How stupid you are.

      January 29, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Reply
    • ben ric

      Filipinos are smart and diligent people..In times of economic hardship, they are willing to work anywhere and whatever kind of job so long as they'll earn a living. A number of these housemaids are college educated women–teachers, nurses, midwives, etc. They'll try to earn and save as much as they can and then start a new life back home.

      January 29, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Reply
    • polaris

      100 % ETHIO u know what ur right we are poor but we only have one bullet to burst ur stupid brained that even ur richnest cant protect you.. if ur brave and smart enough tell your insults to filipino face to face if you feel your race is invulnerable like god.. as a matter of fact we threat ur nation as a coward gay always posturing no actions.. like you...

      January 29, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Reply
    • Lee

      It sound Ethio is 100% red chinese citizen

      January 30, 2013 at 11:34 am | Reply
  3. mquared

    hello 100 % ETHIO..... I think you are ignorant and arrogant.... You don't research before posting your comment. Most of your comment if not all are incorrect. We are not poor, and I think I am earning more than what you do.. You can't generalize the whole situation. It really doesn't mean that we have filipinos working abroad, that they are maids or whatsoever poor.. We have a good number of filipinos working in corporate office all around the world. What we do best is in servicing sector...

    I am not really sure but I think you are a Jewish hater.. You don't have to hate them becuase they are God's chosen people...

    January 29, 2013 at 2:30 am | Reply
  4. 100 % Ethio is a moron

    hello 100 % ETHIO I think you are a hillbilly who just happens to know to use a computer. Better stick to playing Facebook games and leave the serious stuff to intelligent people. I say you just defenestrate, since you have no idea of what to do haha

    January 29, 2013 at 4:01 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    It will take decades for Asian countries to forge a relationship with each other like neighbours should. The ASEAN was formed in 1967. Member states were all mired in the post-war misery then. The end of World War II saw also the departure of their colonial masters.
    Take a look at the map, one understands why the ASEAN will have a lot to catch up, if it wants to be Asia's EU. Separated by waters, countries in the region had never had much to do with each other historically. Today they still have closer ties to their former occupiers than to their neighbours.

    January 29, 2013 at 8:55 am | Reply
    • Sophie

      J.Von hettlingen, you are absolutely right, most countries in ASEAN still have closer ties to their European occupiers...
      I.E. without the French there would not be a country like Cambodia today. The Vietnameses and Thais have been robbed Khmers' land for centuries, and not to mention butcher the Khmers like pigs. Therefore, Cambodians still look up to France, China, and U.S.A. South East Asia is like the Mediteranean region.

      January 29, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  6. Hey

    Don't blame the guy probably some S*** for brain guy brained washed in china, look at the South China Sea it's being strip mined for all sorts of endangered marine life, few months ago a frigate got stuck I the spratleys and they dynamite it out of the reef, when I was in the Philippines I saw a lot of fake, stolen, pirated products made in china by people who earn so much less than Filipino maxes in other country's who are making an honest living

    January 31, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  7. Beefburger

    Perhaps the Philippines would allow the U.S. to rent space for a much more moderately sized naval base than the former Subic Bay station. As the largest portion of the U.S. forces are to be based in Australia it only makes good tactical sense to have a forward operations base. We have other such military base contracts without any "colonialism" involved.

    February 21, 2013 at 7:24 am | Reply
  8. Beefburger

    ASEAN will never work while Big Brother China is hoarding everything in the pantry! On the other hand money poured into the Phils from China landing into corrupt pockets. Do you think China did not expect certain things in return? Corrupt politicians will continually doom the good people of the Philippines.

    February 21, 2013 at 7:31 am | Reply
  9. CredurfNeetle

    Marvelous Post.thanks for share..much more wait ..

    Nike Free Haven 3.0 for mænd

    April 9, 2013 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  10. dark raven

    I saw a racist term for such rude people I think in terms of economic status china could struggle their economy when they started to block all import from Philippines but as well phils importing only 20% or 30% on china but china are totally occupying most of 90% of import to phils. I think china should created strategy not blaming downward of their economy in the future.there might be a big lost for them to maintain their status when it comes to economy.

    April 3, 2014 at 11:30 am | Reply

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