Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The Philippines Confronts China in the South China Sea: Power Politics vs. Liberalism-Legalism

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The Philippines Confronts China in the South China Sea: Power Politics vs. Liberalism-Legalism

Article excerpt

A COMMON PREMISE IN THE STUDY OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS SINCE Thucydides's account of the Peloponnesian War is that big powers overwhelm or subdue small powers in all kinds of conflicts. Furthermore, in an asymmetric conflict-a contention between political actors with a wide disparity in capabilities-the strong are bound to and should win (Arregiun-Toft 2005). Consequently, small powers have a low level of participation in world affairs and might find it detrimental to their interest to engage in risky and expensive foreign policy undertakings such as balancing or bandwagoning.

However, history shows that power preponderance does not give big powers carte blanche to impose their will on small powers. Small powers sometimes have applied balancing strategies against the major powers despite the military and diplomatic disparities between them-for example, Finland against the Soviet Union in 1939-1940, North Vietnam against the United States in the 1960s, and Iraq against the United States in 1991 and again in 2003. Clearly, inferences based on relative power relations cannot explain why small powers challenge big powers and in certain cases even provoke or instigate an international crisis or an armed conflict with them (Chan 2011). If global or local conditions for balancing are ripe, small powers can either draw on their geostrategic location to exert leverage on the powerful state, rely on other major powers for military assistance and security guarantees, or appeal to international law and organizations. Considered as the least coercive form of conflict resolution, this last approach banks on a promise of rewards, the power of persuasion, and reliance on the legitimacy of its claims in the dispute (Russett and Starr 1996). The small power uses legal precedent and reciprocity to legitimize its claim and delegitimize the opponent's before the global society.

The Philippines is a classic example of a small power challenging an emergent power in the twenty-first century-China. Confronted by the latter's power-politics approach in the South China Sea dispute, the administration of Benigno Aquino implemented a delicate balancing policy. In 2011, it resumed efforts to modernize the armed forces of the Philippines (AFP), which is engrossed in domestic counterinsurgency. In mid-June 2011, a ranking administration official commented that the Philippines could invoke the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty if the dispute became a military problem (McIndoe 2011).

The Aquino administration's balancing policy on China, however, is extremely risky. The Philippines does not have the financial resources to develop even a modest territorial defense capability. Moreover, the country is simply no match for an affluent and militarily powerful China. There is also uncertainty about the extent of the US security guarantee under the Mutual Defense Treaty. The Barack Obama administration "supports" the Philippines's position, but appears noncommittal and wary of triggering an all-out confrontation with China, a major US trading partner. Faced with these daunting problems, the Philippines has opted for a two-track diplomatic strategy-a balancing policy predicated on a limited arms buildup and the US security guaran- tee, and a liberal-legal approach that relies on the instrumentalities of a regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)-to constrain an increasingly assertive China.

Focusing on the two-month-long Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012, I examine two contrasting approaches to the South China Sea dispute: China's power politics and the Philippines's liberalism-legalism. I raise these questions: What are the internal and external factors behind the two countries' approaches to the territorial dispute? What are the components of these approaches and their attendant risks and problems? And what will be the likely consequences of these differing approaches for their maritime dispute? …

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