For decades, the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, now called as the Philippine Western Sea in the Philippines, has long been debated by its claimants: Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Taiwan, Vietnam, China, and the Philippines (Baker, 2004). Among all these states, the most active and significant actors are the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China. There are several reasons for the dispute: (1) the presence of natural gas and oil in some parts of the territories, (2) potential profit for commercial fishing1, (3) potential profit for commercial shipping2, and (4) extension of continental shelf claims – expansion of territory and a boost in the country’s sovereignty3 (Joyner, n.d.).
The Spratly’s issue has always been crucial since it directly affects the different state’s national interests on profit and security. For one, the Philippines and China have each asserted their power on claiming the islands by installing their own flags over their claimed areas. The Philippines, following the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas’ – which empowers the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – laws on the 200 nautical miles zone, claimed a number of Spratly islands since these islands are within the 200nm distance from Palawan.
On the other hand, China claimed most of the Spratly Islands, using historical background as its basis (BBC, 2013). Also, both countries resorted to upgrading their military capabilities in the sense that they both deploy ships to take turns on guarding their claimed areas. These actions caused to increase the tensions and strains in the two countries’ relationship (Encomienda, 2011).
Both the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea are under the United Nation’s efforts of bringing peace and unity among different nations or countries (ITLOS, 2013). Acknowledging the principles introduced by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas4, both China and the Philippines have participated in ratifying it. However, both also have chosen not to follow the UNCLOS’ guide on settling boundary disputes closely (Yeneza, 2012).
Even with the efforts of the Philippines on taking the conflict to the ITLOS and the ICJ and promote diplomacy, it has still been forced to resort to upgrading its military capacity in order to increase security over their claimed areas and to respond to China’s actions on asserting their claim over the Spratly’s. With this, it can be concluded that the international organizations involved as mediators to the issue are insufficient. The guide presented by the UNCLOS is too limited for the varying arguments that both the Philippines and China present in order to fully claim the Spratly Islands. However, these institutions should not be blamed fully for the failure of the conflict resolution. The governments of China and the Philippines have a big role in the conflict; none of the states wants to either compromise or interpret the UNCLOS in the same way (Jinming and Dexia, 2003).
These international issues can be better comprehended by the realist theoretical framework. Realism denotes that the state aims to achieve national interest through acquiring more power; it gives more priority to the national interest rather than its ideology. If its national interest could not be gained because of other states, it has the right to go against them in order to assert its power and achieve its national interest (Morgenthau, 2006). Thomas Hobbes (1651), an author on realism, discussed that realism has three core assumptions: (1) the equality of men or states, (2) the interaction of states in anarchy, and (3) the actions taken by the different states are motivated by competition, hesitancy, and progress.
In the case of the Philippines and China on the Spratly’s issue, the first assumption of Hobbes can be applied in the sense that neither China nor the Philippines will contend the islands in the basis of which state is more developed or has more alliances. For this territorial issue, using the state’s development or its capacity to enhance its development through the acquisition of the islands does not guarantee the resolution of the issue. China and the Philippines both have equal footing on their claims on the islands (Joyner, n.d.) On the second assumption, Hobbes mentioned of interaction among states.
China and the Philippines have their own governments, however, in the Spratly Islands, there are mediators: the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. These mediators, as much as they try to pacify the conflicts, were not able to control the conflict; since, states are free of doing what they please to do to assert their power and sovereignty – thus, serving their own national interests (Furtado, 1991). For once, one of the proposed resolutions of China to resolve the conflict – to have the governments of each state deal with the conflict directly instead of having mediators – seem more compatible with the issue. Lastly, it is innate for states to compete with each other to get to the top.
Even though every state wants to have good relations with others, one cannot deny even a hint of competition. Being critical and cautious, these states will not go against randomly; they will be vigilant enough to choose who to compete with. Succeeding in the particular competition, the state achieves progress (Hobbes, 1651). In the case of China and the Philippines, one of the main reasons for the fight over the Spratly Islands is profit. Aside from the presence of natural gas and oil, the islands are a good spot for commercial fishing and commercial shipping. Hence, investing in this area can give high returns of investment to the country who owns it. Plus, the prestige of being the first East Asian country to possess oil boosts its international image, let alone lessens its relying on the Middle East for oil and natural gas supply (Yeneza, 2012).
Hans J. Morgenthau (2006) and his six principles on political realism can also be related to the case of the Philippines and China on the Spratly’s issue. First of all, the society is ruled by laws that are created based on the nature of man. The UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas) was created to solve and/or prevent conflicts such as the Spratly Islands issue.
Therefore, it can be considered that the UNCLOS itself can be the solution to the problem only if that law was considered. However, even though such law – that brought about the existence of the UNCLOS – is implemented and expected to serve for the benefit of men, the men involved in the conflict, or the states rather, chose not to adhere with the UNCLOS (Yeneza, 2012). Secondly, realism is directed towards the use of power5. The Philippines and China demonstrated their power as they both valiantly expressed their claims on the disputed areas and how much they spent for them.
As China asserted its claim on the Spratly Islands, the Philippines resorted to securing the areas it claimed (Encomienda, 2011). The third principle, according to Morgenthau (2006), power is not fixed. In the case of the Philippines and China, they controlled each other’s exercise of power on the claimed areas as they both measure and depend on each others’ actions in order to formulate and plan what to do next (Yeneza, 2012). The fourth principle of realism is related to the moral importance of the actions done by the two states – Philippines and China.
At times, morality and success do not go together; some states tend to go down the path of impiety in order to achieve its national interests. In realism, states are innate of being mindful of the actions they are about to execute because of other factors that can be affected by its desired course of action. Thus, the Philippines and China can opt to wage war in order to acquire the disputed territories. Conversely, both countries have chosen the path of diplomacy rather than war, knowing full well that morally speaking, waging a war is not right since many civilians will be affected, as well as the fact that the costs brought by the war exceed the benefits that they will acquire from the Spratly Islands. Then, another principle Morgenthau (2006) explained is that states fail to recognize moral aspirations in relation to the moral laws that rule the universe. The state is self-centered; it only sees its own reasons and interests as the valid ones.
Being self-centered, it does not give importance to the reasons and interests of other states. If only states can understand and compromise for others’ interests, the Spratly’s issue would have been solved decades ago. As each country present their claims on the areas, it is clear that no one wants to give up (Yeneza, 2012). Lastly, the sixth principle is that political realism is different with other schools of thought that states may adopt (Morgenthau, 2006). The conflict of China and the Philippines on the Spratly’s are grounded for the pursuant of their national interests (Yenez, 2012). Aside from the profit the Spratly’s may offer, another reason it is being fought over is that it affects the matters of security to both countries. Both the Philippines and China believe that in order to pursue security, they must secure their territories; thus, they each lay claim on the Spratly’s (De Castro, 2011).
In summary, China and the Philippines have both resorted to upgrading their military capabilities in order to enhance security over their claimed areas. Through the years, China spent so much on military expenditure whereas the Philippines created more military capability programs. In the realist approach, as long as China and the Philippines hold on to their own claims on the Spratly’s, neither the International Court of Justice nor the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea will be able to calmly resolve the conflict between the two countries.
With the Philippines maintaining a good relationship with the other ASEAN members, it garnered the support of other Southeast Asian countries in laying claim to the Spratly’s; thus, giving it more strength on its hold on the islands (Yeneza, 2012). Unless one of them give up on its claim, the conflict will not be resolved easily and without causing further strains among the countries’ relationship (Morgenthau, 2006).
There are two possible solutions that can be taken to resolve the conflict: (1) share the claimed areas, whenever it is feasible, and (2) undergo a diversion process. For the first solution to work, the Philippines and China must be allowed to gather the resources and share them equally – e.g. fish and seafood, oil, natural gas, sites for commercial shipping. Bilateral talks should always be done; therefore, the countries must interact directly rather than use a mediator and then promote diplomacy. The second one will be that rather than focusing on the conflict itself, both the Philippines and China should focus on repairing and enhancing their diplomatic ties and cooperation.
They may opt to engage in mutually beneficial bilateral agreements and allow their relationship to pacify or stabilize (Yeneza, 2012). In the realist approach, it can be seen that the different international institutions have delayed the resolution of the Spratly’s issue rather than fixing it quickly. The issue requires the states to interact and discuss the matter directly, rather than using a mediator, in which the clauses provided in the guidelines for settling territorial disputes are too limited and can be interpreted in varying ways depending on the ideology adopted by a certain state.
Baker, C. 2004. China-Philippine relations: cautious cooperation. Pacific Center for Security Studies. October 5, 2013. Accessed from: http://apcss.org
BBC. 2013. Q&A: South China sea dispute. October 5, 2013. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349
De Castro, R.C. 2011. Maritime security Asia. October 5, 2013. Accessed from: http://maritimesecurity.asia
Encomienda, A.A. 2011. The south China sea: Back to the future through cooperation. October 6, 2013. Accessed from: http://www.southchinaseastudies.org
Furtado, X.1991. International Law and the Dispute over the Spratly Islands:Whither UNCLOS? October 5, 2013. Accessed from: http://www.findarticles.com
Jinming, L. and Dexia, L. 2003. The dotted line on the Chinese map of the south China sea: A note. October 4, 2013. Accessed from: https://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/6494
Joyner, C.C. n.d. The Spratly Islands dispute in the south China sea: Problems, policies and prospects for diplomatic accommodation. South China Sea Virtual Library. October 4, 2013. Accessed from: http://www.southchinasea.org
Morgentau, H.J. 2006. Politics among nations: The struggle for power and peace. 7th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.
Yeneza, Christine. 2012. The spratly’s conflict: Foreign policy implications to the people’s republic of china and the republic of the Philippines. Cebu City, Philippines: University of San-Jose Recolectos