The West Philippine Sea Arbitration in Context of Great Power Competition

21 December 2016 / ChinaUS Focus

by Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

Since initiating a legal challenge to China’s claims and recent activities in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) in January 2013, the Philippines had effectively restrained itself from undertaking any action in the contested maritime space believing that the same will undermine its case and that such exercise of self-restraint will confer it moral high ground. The primacy of the legal track apparently led the Philippines to close all other avenues of resolving the dispute while the case remains pending, despite the fact that (without necessarily endorsing) private out-of-court settlement remains a widely accepted legal option. The hands-off policy hurts Philippine interests indefinitely, notably fishing, without adequate relief or mitigation. It also prevents even the barest minimum repairs and improvement necessary to maintain the country’s facilities in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) /Spratlys in WPS. Finally, the legal fixation limits Philippine action and fails to take into account evolving realities and dynamics, notably increasing U.S.-China competition that blurs and shifts alliances, compelling smaller powers to be more cautious and contributing to overall regional anxiety and instability.

Fishing for jurisdiction

While the policy of inaction in WPS for the duration of the case may have its merits, it has considerable immediate and potential long-term unfavorable consequences. One of the innocent casualties to the disputes are Filipino fishermen who were advised to refrain from fishing in Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) as doing so may put them in harm’s way, a move seen by some as surrendering access to this rich traditional fishing ground to the Chinese. These poor individuals are not big commercial fishing operators who can assume the costs of moving to other farther fishing grounds, but are municipal or artisanal fishing people, whose very subsistence and livelihood depend on this nearby fishing lagoon. Government efforts to account for them and provide them with an alternative livelihood have been vague at present. One wonders why instead of finding ways to let them fish again in the area or equip them with more sturdy seaworthy vessels and better communication means to keep in touch with Philippine maritime law enforcement authorities in case they were threatened, they were told to fish at their own risk. The presence of Filipino fishermen in WPS, aside from curbing foreign illegal fishing, justifies the presence of Philippine maritime law enforcement assets in the area to regulate their activities and to ensure their safety and protection.Read more…

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