Albert del Rosario, the Filipino foreign minister, talks to Foreign Policy about what will come of Beijing’s aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea.
- By Lally WeymouthLally Weymouth is senior associate editor of the Washington Post. She has been conducting interviews with world leaders for over 25 years.
The foreign minister of the Philippines, Albert del Rosario, has been the key strategist in his country’s fight to uphold its claims in the South China Sea against Beijing, which asserts ownership of most of that crucial waterway. Last week, Del Rosario spoke with Lally Weymouth.
Foreign Policy: What did you think of China’s President Xi Jinping’s remarks at the White House that China supports “maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea [and] managing disputes through dialogue and … negotiation?” The Chinese president also said he did not intend to pursue militarization. Was there anything new in President Xi’s statements?
Albert del Rosario: The Chinese government also said not long ago that [China’s] reclamations [in the South China Sea] are intended for many reasons, including military and defense. So now he is contradicting what [he] said in the past.
FP: So you are skeptical?
ADR: Our experience with China, unfortunately, is that there is inconsistency between what is declared and what is happening on the ground.
FP: Why is the dispute in the South China Sea so important, both for the Philippines and the world?
ADR: Let me review the core issue, which is China’s claim that they have indisputable sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea as represented by their “nine-dash line.” This is in contradiction to international law. If this position were not challenged, the Philippines would stand to lose our right to fish in our exclusive economic zone and our right to our hydrocarbon resources. Moreover, we are not allowed to enforce our laws in our exclusive economic zones, [we have] no right to fish, no right to our natural resources.
FP: Are you referring to the disputed Philippine territory of the Scarborough Shoal?
ADR: Yes, we are talking about Scarborough and Reed Bank in terms of hydrocarbon resources and other areas too.
FP: When did you decide there was no way to do anything about your claims in the South China Sea other than to go to The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration?
ADR: No country should be allowed to claim an entire sea for itself, which is essentially what China is doing. Forty to 60 percent of the world’s traded goods traverse those seas. Fifty percent of oil-tanker shipments go through there as well. So there should be interest by the international community as to what is going on in the South China Sea.
FP: How much land has China reclaimed in the South China Sea?
ADR: From 500 to 2,000 acres in the last 18 months.
FP: Has the U.S. response been weak?
ADR: I think the U.S. has endeavored to strengthen its allies in the region to address these common challenges. The Philippines has received significant U.S. assistance in terms of training and equipment.
FP: But nobody is stopping China, right? That must be very worrying to you.
ADR: It is disconcerting that nobody is stopping them. That is why we are doing our best to address these challenges, specifically through political efforts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] and bilateral consultations with China. We tried to enlist the support of countries who are sympathetic to us.
FP: How did that go?
ADR: It went well but was not sufficient. As a last resort, we had to go to international arbitration, which is where we are now.
FP: When did you start this process?
ADR: I came to office in 2011. Their reclamations started in 2013.
FP: When did you bring the case?
ADR: In 2013. A year before, they forced us out of the Scarborough Shoal, which is well within our economic zone. They continued to water-canon our fisherman, they chased down our boats, and deprived our fisherman of their livelihood. We consider these to be aggressive unilateral actions. This has been happening for quite a long time. The arbitration covers [the fact that we consider China’s] nine-dash line to be an invalid claim. We are also challenging their use of force and the threat of the use of force and their alleged historic rights and claims.
FP: This arbitration is going on at a tribunal in The Hague which China claims has no jurisdiction?
ADR: Yes. We are there, and we invited them many times to participate in this arbitration. They have declined to do so. They are challenging the jurisdiction of the court. We had a hearing on the jurisdiction and expect [the decision] as early as a month from now. After that, we go on to another set of hearings, which will look at the merits of the case. After that, we should have a final award, which is not appealable.
FP: But even if you win, will China alter its behavior?
ADR: China says it will be a Pyrrhic victory for us because they are not participating and will not honor the award. We say that if they want to be a responsible regional leader, they must have respect for the rule of the law.
FP: Your country is not in the position to challenge China militarily, is it?
ADR: Maybe in a boxing match with Manny Pacquiao! At the end of the day, we really think international law is a great equalizer.
FP: During the economic downturn, will China become more nationalistic or focus on domestic issues?
ADR: That is their challenge. We hope they don’t use international relations as a means to divert the attention of their citizens from their domestic problems.
FP: Isn’t the Philippines now talking about strengthening its defense relationship with the U.S. and allowing America to use Subic Bay again? [The Philippines asked the United States to leave both Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in 1991].
ADR: We signed an agreement with the U.S., the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which will entitle the U.S. to use designated army facilities for humanitarian assistance or disaster relief. We are also allowing the U.S. to preposition materials and equipment.
FP: Did China put pressure on the Philippines not to go to arbitration?
ADR: Yes, they came to us many times to say that arbitration should not be the answer to this dispute, this should be [done through] bilateral consultations.
FP: Did they threaten trade relations if you went to arbitration?
ADR: We had some discouraging efforts on the part of the Chinese regarding our banana exports during the Scarborough Shoal conflict and also in terms of our group tourism industry.
FP: But that didn’t stop you?
ADR: It did not auger for a healthy relationship and did not stop us from going to arbitration. Even now, they say we should drop arbitration and resort to bilateral talks.
FP: So the Chinese care about the results of the arbitration?
ADR: If the international community takes a position against their not adhering to the rule of law, I think that would be important to China.
FP: Are you receiving support from your fellow ASEAN countries?
ADR: China exercises great influence in our region. Outside of ASEAN, we have gotten significant support and that was very helpful and encouraged other countries, including those in ASEAN, to be supportive of the process we selected.
FP: Support from Japan or South Korea?
ADR: Japan, Australia, India, the European Union, and the G7.
FP: How do you feel about the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP], which is being promoted by the U.S.?
ADR: We wish we were a part of it, and we are hoping we can join.
FP: What do you think China’s intention is in the South China Sea?
ADR: Their aim is to fulfill their expansionist agenda. They obviously have one. It is both economic and military. It’s economic because there is now competition in the world for resources. It is military because they are trying to establish defense corridors. They want to be a maritime power but to be that, you need your own lake. We think they have selected the South China Sea as their lake.
I think the international community should be vigilant about what is happening in the South China Sea because it has the potential to change the international order.
You now have one superpower, which is the United States. I think if China’s expansionist agenda, which is unlawful, is not curtailed, that could bring change.
FP: So the power in Asia would become China, not the U.S.?
ADR: There would be no adherence to the rule of law. If the rule of law is not adhered to, you will have chaos and anarchy. It will be the rule of law versus the rule of the jungle. Effectively, you will have a region where might is right and where coercion is an acceptable dispute settlement mechanism.
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