• Edcel John A. Ibarra

Toward Peaceful Settlement of the South China Sea Disputes

As the Philippines navigates through an ever-changing security environment in the South China Sea, it is important for foreign policy makers not to lose sight of the objective of eventually reaching a peaceful settlement of the territorial and maritime disputes. Settlement of the South China Sea disputes entails the determination of territorial ownership and the delimitation of maritime borders. To ensure that all government efforts align with the end of peaceful settlement in the South China Sea, I outline five broad strategies as guideposts for Philippine foreign policy making based on the scholarly literature on territorial and maritime conflict resolution.

Focus on Other Issues

First, the Philippines should set aside the disputes and focus on less controversial issues. This can mean concentrating on strengthening nontraditional security, economic, socio-cultural ties with the other claimants.

This strategy can seem counterintuitive because the instinctive response is often to tackle disputes head-on as they arise. But insisting on immediate resolution can sometimes strengthen mutual animosities and heighten tensions. Focusing on other issues in the meantime can temper emotions and build confidence among the claimants, setting the stage for smoother settlement later.

Nonetheless, setting aside the disputes for functional cooperation is insufficient. While it can decrease tensions, it only postpones final settlement. The claimants must still eventually deal with their disagreements head-on. Focusing on other issues must only be a means toward the end of settling the core disputed issues.

Avoid Military Actions

Second, the Philippines should refrain from using its armed forces to unilaterally advance its territorial and maritime claims. Military actions can be counterproductive because they undercut commitments to peace and signal a willingness to use force when territorial and maritime demands cannot be met.

In general, the Philippines should exercise maximum restraint. It should use neither its own military nor its alliance with the US to spark armed confrontations with the other claimants.

The Philippines has been modernizing its military, but it should stress that the effort is defensive, aimed only at attaining a minimum defense posture on par with its neighbors rather than amassing capabilities to defeat the other claimants.

The Philippines is a treaty ally of the US, but it should reassure the other claimants that it will not use the alliance against them. One way of reassurance is to ask the US to remain neutral on territorial sovereignty issues. However, as a user state of the South China Sea, the US may legitimately involve itself in maritime issues, such as freedom of navigation and upholding a rules-based order at sea. Another way of reassurance is to shift the focus of the alliance to other areas in the country or to nontraditional security.

Nonetheless, military actions are justifiable when used to defend the status quo and deter the other claimants from resorting to military actions themselves. Still, the Philippines should clearly signal that military actions will be used not to gain a more favorable position in the disputes, but merely to preserve facts on the ground for future settlement.

Agree on Peaceful Settlement Norms

Third, the Philippines should work with the other claimants to arrive at common standards on how to peaceful resolve the territorial and maritime disputes. Agreement on peaceful settlement norms is crucial because it provides a framework in which a final settlement may be reached.

The most pertinent peaceful settlement norms are found in international law, which not only prescribes means for nonviolent dispute resolution but also provides rationales and methods for determining territorial ownership, delimiting overlapping maritime borders, and undertaking provisional arrangements in disputed areas. Other relevant peaceful settlement norms are also found in state practices such as territorial exchanges, boundary delimitation agreements, and the establishment of joint management areas or international peace parks.

States usually seek to apply international peaceful settlement norms by referring their disputes to an international court or tribunal. The Philippines did so in 2013 when it filed an arbitration case against China concerning maritime issues in the South China Sea. But while the arbitral award, issued in 2016, clarified several legal and technical issues in the South China Sea disputes, crucially, it did not tackle questions of territorial ownership or delimit overlapping maritime boundaries between the parties.

States can also apply international peaceful settlement norms in direct negotiations with other disputants. The Philippines, for example, can frame its negotiations with the other claimants within internationally recognized principles of territorial acquisition and maritime delimitation. In general, the aim should be to come to a shared understanding on which norms ought to apply in the South China Sea disputes.

Manage Obstacles to an Agreement

Fourth, the Philippines should clear potential obstacles to the adoption of a final settlement, whether through a court decision or a negotiated agreement.

The Philippines must ensure that any final settlement will be backed by its domestic public. In general, the government must satisfy all domestic constitutional and statutory rules. Insisting on an unpopular agreement will be unsustainable as it can force politicians to withdraw their endorsement of the original settlement and steer the electorate toward a candidate who will pledge to undo it.

One way to manage domestic opposition is to temper nationalist sentiments. The disputed lands and waters must not be so strongly linked to the people’s imagination of the nation such that any reasonable compromise is seen as undermining national integrity. The disputed land features and maritime areas must also be considered in isolation of one another rather than forming an indivisible whole to make any equitable redistribution of land and redrawing of borders easier to bear.

One final obstacle concerns other lingering disagreements between the claimants. States often postpone seeking a settlement because they use their territorial and maritime disputes to coercively extract concessions on other contested bilateral issues. To prevent such a situation, the Philippines should assess other disagreements it may have with the other claimants and try to resolve those issues first to tone down any sense of rivalry. This circles back to the first strategy of focusing on other issues for now.

Adopt a Comprehensive Approach

Finally, the Philippines should aim for comprehensiveness. Comprehensiveness means that all the above strategies must be pursued simultaneously. Focusing on other issues but not seeking an agreement on peaceful settlement norms leads to nowhere. Seeking an agreement on norms but at the same time pursuing military actions, stirring up nationalist sentiments, or linking the disputes with other contested issues is counterproductive. The strategies are inseparable from one another.

Comprehensiveness also means inclusivity. Ultimately, peaceful settlement requires the cooperation of all the claimants. It cannot be achieved unilaterally. Even if the Philippines religiously adheres to all these strategies, one uncooperative claimant can render all efforts futile.

Thus, the Philippines should also strive to get the support of the other claimants to comprehensively adopt these strategies. ASEAN-China consultations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea present an opportunity insofar as it gathers all the claimants into a single forum. However, the scope must be expanded (crucially, the code should facilitate agreement on more specific peaceful settlement norms) and implementation, strengthened.

Without the commitment of all—not just one or a few—of the claimants to resolve the territorial and maritime disputes without resorting to coercion, durable peace and security in the South China Sea cannot be guaranteed.


Edcel John A. Ibarra is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in international studies at the Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines Diliman. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science, magna cum laude, in 2015 from the same university.

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