Against China: Is the Philippines' 'Moralpolitik' the Right Move?

President Aquino's tough stance on China has managed to mobilize the Southeast Asian country against a tough neighbor. But at what cost?

For years, the Philippines has been hailed as the courageous David that took the Chinese Goliath to court. The considerably weaker Southeast Asian country has sought to leverage prevailing international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to challenge China’s dubitable doctrine of “historical rights” and notorious nine-dash-line claims in adjacent waters. As far as its South China Sea policy is concerned, the Philippines’ trademark approach is “lawfare” (legal warfare). None of the other claimant states, from Vietnam to Malaysia and Brunei, have dared to adopt a similar measure against mighty China, though Vietnam has been quietly making some preparations.

Lacking full-fledged sovereignty, Taiwan—considered by Beijing to be a renegade province—is in no position to launch credible lawfare, even though it occupies the most-coveted naturally-formed feature in the area, the Itu Aba (Taiping to locals), and controls the Pratas chain of islets close to the Northeast Asian theater. No wonder, then, Taipei is more interested, and feverishly advocating for, joint development and exploitation of resources in the contested areas. (But things could change if the pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins in the upcoming elections, especially in an era of growing anti-Mainland sentiment in the country.)

The Philippines’ lawfare strategy, however, falls under the rubric of what I call the “Moralpolitik” of the Aquino administration, which came into power in 2010 on the heels of a moral crusade against a rotten state apparatus. Over the years, not only did President Benigno Aquino seek to hold his predecessor (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) to account, but he gradually also upended years of increasingly cordial and quasi-subservient relations with Beijing that reached its zenith in the mid-2000s. While the Philippines’ legal-moralistic approach deserves global applause, it has gradually come at the expense of the Southeast Asian country’s strategic interests on the ground.

Intent on preserving “moral high ground” amid a protracted legal dispute with China, the Philippines has shunned any significant refurbishment of its dilapidated facilities in the Spratly chain of islands, just when all other claimant countries have been fortifying their positions amid China’s massive reclamation activities, which are giving birth to the skeleton of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea.

Realpolitik vs. Moralpolitik

In a recent exchange with Philippine foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario, he emphasized the nature of the country’s principled, independent foreign policy. When I asked him about reclamation activities of other claimant countries, particularly China and (allegedly) even Vietnam in recent months, he told me that it’s very important for the Philippines “to go to the court with clean hands.” I raised the point on reclamation activities in light of the Aquino administration’s decision to once again postpone the refurbishment of its creaking facilities and airstrip on Thitu Island (Pag-asa to Filipinos), just when other claimant states, including Taiwan, have been upgrading their facilities in the Spratly chain of islands.

He was mindful to reiterate that, under the Aquino administration, it is solely the manner—rather than the content—of the country’s foreign policy that has changed. For years, Beijing—along with government critics in the Philippines—has argued that the root of the awry state of Philippine-Chinese relations lies in Aquino’s supposed strategic debacles and confrontational language. Less-charitable Chinese commentators, who see the Philippines as nothing but an American proxy, forward conspiracy theories, whereby the Aquino administration has supposedly upped the ante with Beijing at Washington’s behest. China also spares no effort to dubiously cite the United States’ pivot to Asia—a policy that was actually announced after China stepped up its claims against smaller claimant states in the South China Sea—as a supposed justification for its aggressive behavior in near waters and well into the high seas.

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