Balancing Law and Realpolitik in the South China Sea
- Lucio Blanco Pitlo III
“There is no ifs and buts. It is ours. But we have been acting along that legal truth and line. But we have to temper it with the times and the realities that we face today.” This statement in President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) last month reflects his policy toward Philippine claims in the South China Sea. That position has remained fairly consistent since coming to power in 2016. As he sets out to visit Beijing for the fifth time this month, maritime issues will once again be high on the agenda.
Conflict avoidance and protection of the country’s waters and marine resources constitute Duterte’s fundamental priorities in the South China Sea and he sees peaceful dialogue as the best way to achieve them. He has argued, “More and better results can be reached in the privacy of a conference room than in a squabble in public.” But high public mistrust of China and perceived weak handling of sea incidents have raised demands for transparency or oversight in the conduct of such talks. This should, however, be balanced by a respect for the very real sensitivities attached to diplomatic negotiations, especially over a decades-old territorial and maritime row.