Krista Wiegand, Baker Fellow, in Philippines
As a Fulbright Scholar in the Philippines this semester, I have begun researching the South China Sea (knows as the West Philippines Sea here) dispute and the Philippines’ role in the dispute. Follow along to read updates on my research. Since my arrival two weeks ago, I have started networking with scholars, experts, and government officials and settling in to the Department of International Studies at De La Salle University. I am hosted by Dr. Renato Cruz de Castro, Professor of International Studies, Director of American Studies, and expert scholar on U.S.-Philippine security relations. Dr. de Castro was a Fulbright Scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, DC during the fall semester 2016, and during that time, he visited the Baker Center to give a talk on U.S.-Philippine-China security relations and the South China Sea dispute, which was so popular that people were spilling out of the Toyota Auditorium! Dr. de Castro is currently traveling, speaking at the Chatham House in London this week, and participating in a fellowship next week in Tokyo. I am honored to working with such a highly regarded and well published scholar!
The current regime, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, has taken a different approach than his predecessor, President Benigno Aquino, who ordered the submission of an international arbitration case against China in January 2013. The award was announced in July 2016, shortly after President Duterte took office, and the international arbitration panel of judges decided in favor of the Philippines, ruling that China’s claims for the “features” (shoals, reefs, islands, islets, etc.) in the South China Sea was illegal in international law and that China’s buildup of the reefs and shoals to make them into habitable islands for military use was also a breach of international law. Despite the win for the Philippines, President Duterte has taken a more passive approach than former President Aquino, particularly in his approach to relations with China.
Last week, I met with and interviewed the newly appointed Philippine Ambassador to China, Chito Santa Romana and learned that Duterte and his advisors have a plan for dual track negotiations with China, mainly involving confidence building measures (CBMs) with China. This is a typical approach in international diplomacy, working on improving bilateral relations on issues such as trade, people to people exchanges, and other “soft power” issues, that has been suspend for the past 3 years during the arbitration. By improving diplomatic relations on these other issues – as some of my own research has shown – the Philippines government hopes to be able to work towards a long term settlement of the South China Sea dispute in a manner than is not as hostile as the former regime’s arbitration case against China. Hopefully this bilateral approach will make settlement of the dispute more likely in the long term. In the short term, the current diplomatic approach has resulted in China agreeing to allow Filipino fishermen to fish in the area around the disputed Scarborough Shoals, which is viewed here as an important economic and diplomatic concession by China.
I also recently attended a briefing on polling data about Filipino public opinion of foreign policy and the West Philippine Sea dispute, where my host colleague, Dr. Renato Cruz de Castro provided remarks about the poll. There were over 15 news media reporters, with cameras from CNN and all the Philippine news outlets, and the next day’s newspapers reported the findings of the public opinion poll on the cover pages. The main finding of the report was that 84% of those surveyed agreed that the Philippine government should be assertive toward China regarding the dispute. One of my questions to the panelists was about the government’s approach to disseminating information about the dispute to the public. Dr. Jay Batongbacal, professor of law at the University of the Philippines answered the question, which was cited in the newspapers. Though I personally wasn’t cited, I was pleased to see my question was interesting enough to report about in the national news! At the briefing, I sat next to the Philippine foreign correspondent for The Economist and the Singaporean Ambassador to the Philippines, both very interesting people. I also met several other people there, including the Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy, who I will be in touch with to interview in the near future.