Daring to take on China in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, the Philippines went to an international tribunal for justice, and won big. But it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory.
Beijing came back with such ferocity and manipulative diplomacy that other Southeast Asian countries that have similar disputes with it are apparently backing down.
One by one, their positions became clear at meetings this week of Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asian nations, a gathering that was supposed to unanimously call out China for a host of actions in the resource-rich South China Sea building artificial islands and military airstrips, sending warships, staging live-firing exercises and shooing away fishermen from other countries.
And so, the four-day conclave in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, ended on Tuesday with China’s muscles bulging more than ever, and the vaunted unity of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in disarray.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr sought to put a positive spin on the developments.
“Whether or not you will say that this is a triumph of China or a triumph of the Philippines, or a defeat of China or a defeat of the Philippines, the fact is clear,” he told reporters in Manila today. “This is a victory for ASEAN for upholding the very principles of international law and … more importantly, pursuing our negotiations in the dispute in a peaceful manner.”
“Be that as it may, the actual resolution of this dispute between China and the Philippines is a matter between China and the Philippines,” he said, reflecting a position that suits China perfectly.
The first coup de grace China dealt was at ASEAN foreign ministers’ meetings, where it successfully prevented a joint communique from mentioning the July 12 ruling by the Hague-based arbitration panel in favor of the Philippines.
While the communique did express concerns about the tensions in the South China Sea, it did so without naming China.
A mill around the neck of ASEAN Southeast Asia’s main grouping is that it can issue statements only when there is consensus among all 10 members. China leveraged that by ensuring that Cambodia and Laos would not provide that consensus. Both countries receive massive aid from China, which recently announced a USD 600 million package to Cambodia.