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

Using the Scarborough Shoal standoff between China and the Philippines as a case study, in this article I examine two approaches to addressing territorial disputes-power politics and liberalism-legalism. China, a major power, uses realpolitik to press its expansive claim in the South China Sea. The Philippines, a small power, adopts the liberal-legal approach that seeks to balance against China. During the standoff, China drove the Philippines out of the shoal, though stopping short of an armed clash, and effected a de facto occupation of the contested area. As a countermeasure, the Philippines filed a statement of claim with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The confrontation was a test of Thucydides's age-old aphorism that "the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept." KEYWORDS: South China Sea dispute, realism and liberalism, China-Southeast Asia relations.

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. …

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