China and the Philippines on the Spratly Islands Issue:
A Realist Approach
For decades, the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, now called as the Philippine Western Sea in the Philippines, has long been debated by its claimants: Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Taiwan, Vietnam, China, and the Philippines (Baker, 2004). Among all these states, the most active and significant actors are the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China. There are several reasons for the dispute: (1) the presence of natural gas and oil in some parts of the territories, (2) potential profit for commercial fishing1, (3) potential profit for commercial shipping2, and (4) extension of continental shelf claims – expansion of territory and a boost in the country’s sovereignty3 (Joyner, n.d.). The Spratly’s issue has always been crucial since it directly affects the different state’s national interests on profit and security. For one, the Philippines and China have each asserted their power on claiming the islands by installing their own flags over their claimed areas. The Philippines, following the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas’ – which empowers the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – laws on the 200 nautical miles zone, claimed a number of Spratly islands since these islands are within the 200nm distance from Palawan. On the other hand, China claimed most of the Spratly Islands, using historical background as its basis (BBC, 2013). Also, both countries resorted to upgrading their military capabilities in the sense that they both deploy ships to take turns on guarding their claimed areas. These actions caused to increase the tensions and strains in the two countries’ relationship (Encomienda, 2011). Both the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea are under the United Nation’s efforts of bringing peace and unity among different nations or countries (ITLOS, 2013). Acknowledging the principles introduced by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas4, both China and the Philippines have participated in ratifying it. However, both also have chosen not to follow the UNCLOS’ guide on settling boundary disputes closely (Yeneza, 2012).
Even with the efforts of the Philippines on taking the conflict to the ITLOS and the ICJ and promote diplomacy, it has still been forced to resort to upgrading its military capacity in order to increase security over their claimed areas and to respond to China’s actions on asserting their claim over the Spratly’s. With this, it can be concluded that the international organizations involved as mediators to the issue are insufficient. The guide presented by the UNCLOS is too limited for the varying arguments that both the Philippines and China present in order to fully claim the Spratly Islands. However, these institutions should not be blamed fully for the failure of the conflict resolution. The governments of China and the Philippines have a big role in the conflict; none of the states wants to either compromise or interpret the UNCLOS in the same way (Jinming and Dexia, 2003).
These international issues can be better comprehended by the realist theoretical framework. Realism denotes that the state aims to achieve national interest through acquiring more power; it gives more priority to the national interest rather than its ideology. If its national interest could not be gained because of other states, it has the right to go against them in order to assert its power and achieve its national interest (Morgenthau, 2006). Thomas Hobbes (1651), an author on realism, discussed that realism has three core assumptions: (1) the equality of men or states, (2) the interaction of states in anarchy, and (3) the actions taken by the different states are motivated by competition, hesitancy, and progress.
In the case of the Philippines and China on the Spratly’s issue, the first assumption of Hobbes can be applied in the...
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