Pursue diplomacy over troubled waters

03:05 AM June 15, 2011

(Editor’s Note: The writer is a former senior foreign undersecretary and ambassador to Brazil, Italy and to the United Nations. He led the Philippines in drafting and negotiating the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties on the South China Sea.)

The South China Sea has again resurfaced as an area of concern in the region and of attention to the international community.


Once again the Philippines is poised to exercise its leadership to ease tensions and devise a diplomatic strategy to promote peace and cooperation over these troubled waters.

Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario advocates a rules-based South China Sea. It is an ideal proposal which will run smack against several realities.


First, who will enforce the rules and what sanctions will it be for violators of the rules.

Second, China considers the South China Sea as a “Chinese lake.” Its baselines extend as far as the territorial and maritime jurisdiction not only of the Philippines, but also of Malaysia.

Since China claims the whole sea and islands of the South China Sea, it has been reluctant to enter a rules-based regime such as a code of conduct over the sea.

Doughnut principle

The “segregation of disputed relevant features from the undisputed of the waters of the South China Sea” for possible cooperation and possible exploration and exploitation of resources had been proposed.

Professor Hashim Djalal of Indonesia had advocated this so-called “doughnut principle” where pockets of seas considered high seas and undisputed waters inside the “doughnut” are proposed as areas for possible exploration and exploitation.

China has rejected the principle. I hope she is not receptive to the concept.


Third, a rules-based international system is the ideal order of things in a perfect world. Our world is very much an imperfect one where geopolitics and bare-knuckled politics are practiced.

Still, the Philippines should push Del Rosario’s advocacy which will test the mettle of Philippine diplomacy.

Immediate need

Suggestions for a structure of cooperation on the South China Sea other than peaceful dialogue is the more immediate need.

The South China Sea has become a more complex and complicated issue since the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties on the South China Sea (DOC).

A specific structure in the South China Sea separate from the ad hoc Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting and Asean plus 3 meetings and devoted solely to South China Sea issues should now be pursued.

When we drafted and negotiated the DOC, we had regular contacts with China’s Assistant Minister Wang Yi and former Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Fu Ying, Malaysia’s Mohamad Abdul Kadir, Vietnam’s Tam Chien and Le Cong and Brunei’s Lim Jock Sung.

These senior officials, including myself, kept the issue alive and at the same time kept acts and statements from getting out of hand.

Formal structure

The bond of trust and confidence played a crucial role in the drawing up of the DOC. It is now time to elevate the discussion of the South China Sea to a more formal structure.

The DOC has served its purpose. The region has changed and positions of parties concerned have shifted. Other countries outside the region have suddenly become vocal on South China Sea issues.

Instead of geographical segregation, let us think of issue segregation and concentrate on issues where there is a reasonable chance of cooperation such as exploration and exploitation of natural resources in the South China Sea.

Those oil and gas deposits under the South China Sea are useless to claimant states and to mankind if not explored and exploited.

The working Asean-China group entrusted with drafting guidelines for the implementation of the DOC should be able to consider the beneficial multiplier effects which could soften hard issues on the South China Sea.

PH leadership

We led the drafting and the negotiation of the DOC. The Philippines should continue the leadership.

We have no other choice. Everybody knows we are in deficit to protect and promote our interests in the area by military means.

The first priority for the Philippines to maintain this leadership is to speak with one voice and avoid a cacophony of confused and uninformed pronouncements from various sectors of government.

Let us not telegraph our thoughts and what we intend to do. Let us try to keep our mouth shut when not on the negotiating table.

Asean unity

Asean should also unify and speak as one. The South China Sea is an Asean-China issue as we should not fall into the trap of China’s offer to each one of the claimant states for a bilateral dialogue.

Each of the claimants has its own agenda but we should be able to present a united front as we did 10 years ago. This will diminish instances when China could bully claimant states, which Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago correctly observed.

Asean must be able to read more clearly and accurately China’s intentions in the area and understand its history, culture and power structure.

More important, Asean must be able to present to China a political and economic framework for cooperation in the South China Sea which will hold her on the negotiating table instead of in the sea.

Without any such initiative, the South China Sea issue will drift and allow unhampered Chinese activities in the area.

Track II diplomacy

The so-called Track II diplomacy as a means to resolve the South China Sea, which was enunciated by former Foreign Secretary Alberto G. Romulo, should be supported.

Two challenges have to be addressed.

First, who will be involved in the dialogue?

Second, how will the recommendations of the Track II diplomacy be translated into government policy? Governments have a forgettable record on this aspect and salutary suggestions had often been lost in translation.

There are troubles over the waters of the South China Sea. There are also opportunities for radical, agile and aggressive diplomacy to resolve the issues there.

The Philippines should seize these opportunities.

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TAGS: Declaration of the Conduct of Parties, Diplomacy, Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario, South China sea, Spratly Islands
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