The critical role of diplomacy in the SCS dispute

IN light of the recent incident between the Philippines and China on June 17, 2024, in the disputed South China Sea (SCS), it is imperative to scrutinize the strategy and direction of President Marcos Jr.’s administration. The critical options are starkly defined: pursuing peaceful diplomatic negotiations or contemplating the severe ramifications of escalating to war with China. The significance of this decision cannot be overstated.

Consequences of war

Going to war with China over the SCS dispute serves no national interest for the Philippines, and it will lead to the destruction of the country. That is beyond doubt. For any rational human being, this is not an option at all.

Marcos Jr. has to wake up and contend with the fact that there’s a military imbalance between the Philippines and China. The Philippines lacks the military capability to confront China directly. China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, is one of the largest and most advanced in the world. The Philippines, on the other hand, has a comparatively small and less technologically advanced military. Engaging in a conflict would be unequal, likely resulting in significant damage and loss for the Philippines. This is not an illusion but rather a fact.

Likewise, the human cost of war cannot be overstated. There would be significant loss of life, displacement of populations and destruction of infrastructure. The societal trauma and long-term consequences of such a conflict would be devastating. This is most evident as exemplified in the case of Ukraine in the ongoing Ukraine crisis and Gaza in the ongoing Israel-Palestinian military conflict.

Most importantly, any military conflict or war with any country, especially with a superpower like China, would have dire economic consequences, severely disrupting the Philippine economy. China is one of the Philippines’ largest trading partners. Hostilities would disrupt trade, investments and economic cooperation, leading to widespread economic hardship that would devastate the lives of the Filipino people. Again, this is not an illusion but rather a potential reality. Furthermore, a war between the Philippines and China would destabilize the Asean region and the wider Asia-Pacific.

Given all these, it is obvious to any rational human being who is in his right mind and has a genuine love for his/her country that war or a military conflict is not a viable solution to the SCS dispute. Rather, it is the one thing all claimant states must avoid as much as possible.

Rational strategic alternatives

The SCS, with its complexities, competing claims and strategic interests, is a strategic concern for the Philippines and a crucial factor in shaping its economic future. However, the key to resolving this dispute is not in military conflict, confrontation or antagonism but in the power of peaceful diplomacy and sincere dialogue.

Diplomacy is the art of building bridges, finding common ground and forging paths to peace and cooperation. The Philippines and China must engage in sincere, respectful and constructive dialogue and negotiation over the SCS dispute. This dispute cannot and should not be resolved through force, intimidation or military confrontation but through mutual understanding, diplomacy and respect between the two sides. Engaging China through diplomacy is the more rational and sustainable strategy for safeguarding national interests and ensuring the Philippines’ long-term stability, security and peace in Asia.

China is not the enemy but the country’s neighbor and friend. Yes, the Philippines has a dispute with China over the SCS. However, this dispute could be managed peacefully by engaging China diplomatically. In so doing, the Philippines can secure a future where both nations thrive, their people prosper and peace prevails in the SCS to benefit all. Note that geography has placed our nations side by side, and history has shown that cooperation and mutual respect yield far better outcomes than conflict and mistrust between neighbors.

Broader context

Reflecting on the broader historical context, it is evident that the Philippines’ reliance on an external power, particularly the United States, to dictate foreign policy can lead to disastrous consequences. The United States, despite its military might, cannot and will not sustain a prolonged conflict with a peer-level force like China without catastrophic results. The recent experiences of countries like Ukraine serve as stark reminders for the Philippines of the dangers of being drawn into great power rivalry, competition and conflicts.

Filipinos must know that a true friend does not let a friend suffer immense loss and devastation. True friendship is built on mutual trust, respect, care and support. The Ukrainian experience shows us what happens when nations are used as pawns/proxies in larger geopolitical games — cities destroyed, families separated and lives shattered. I hope Filipinos won’t allow our country to be used as a pawn/proxy of the United States in its strategic competition and rivalry with China, for it will lead to our destruction as a people, as a country and as a nation. We should have a strong resolve as a people that we will not allow the Philippines to end up as the Ukraine of Asia.

A call to action

Indeed, the time has come for the Filipino people to control their destiny. This means pressing our government to engage in responsible, sincere and proactive diplomacy with China. It means rejecting the role of a pawn or a proxy for the United States’ strategic games and standing firm as an independent, sovereign nation that values peace, security and stability above all.

Diplomacy is not a sign of weakness but a testament of strength, wisdom and maturity. By choosing the path of diplomacy, the Philippines can avoid Ukraine’s tragic fate and prevent being caught in any devastating military conflict that does not serve the country’s national interest. Instead, it can build a future where it is a respected and prosperous nation in the region.

We need to be mature and grow up as a country and as a people. Being mature and growing up means taking responsibility for one’s future and making hard choices that ensure long-term peace, security and prosperity. The Philippines has the opportunity to lead by example, showing the world that diplomacy, negotiations and dialogue can triumph over conflict, confrontation and aggression, even in a complex geopolitical landscape.

Conclusion

Indeed, the strategic imperative for the Philippines is diplomatic engagement with China. Diplomacy should be the preferred course of action for the Philippines, which involves leveraging diplomatic channels to address the SCS disputes. Diplomatic negotiations can facilitate constructive dialogue, reduce tensions and seek mutually beneficial solutions that uphold international law and regional peace and stability. Hence, the importance of diplomacy cannot be overstated, as it is the most viable path to sustainable and peaceful resolution of the complex issues of the SCS.

No doubt, the recent incident between the Philippines and China in the SCS underscores the urgency for the Marcos administration to navigate its strategic choices carefully. The decision of Marcos as the sole architect of the country’s foreign policy at this juncture is pivotal, with profound implications for the nation’s future and regional peace and security. I hope he chooses diplomacy over military confrontation, for that’s the wisest decision for any leader who truly cares about and loves his/her country.

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD), Peking University, Beijing, China. She is currently a director and the Vice President for External Affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a think tank based in Manila. She also serves as the political/geopolitical analyst of ACPSSI. Currently, she is a Senior Researcher of the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) and a Senior Research Fellow of the Global Governance Institution (GGI). She is also the President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines. Prof. Anna Uy taught Political Science, International Relations, Development Studies, European Studies, Southeast Asia, and China Studies. She is a researcher-writer, academic, and consultant on a wide array of issues. She has worked as a consultant with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs.