Negotiating the tide: Vital role of PH-China bilateral talks in steering through SCS dispute

THE statement of Defense Secretary Gilberto “Gibo” Teodoro Jr. this week that entering into bilateral negotiations over the dispute in the South China Sea (SCS) between the Philippines and China will just be playing into China’s playbook is quite perplexing. Teodoro says bilateral talks with China on the SCS will only hamper and strangle the Philippines’ rights and position. This is one of the reasons why the Philippines is seeking multilateralism.

I ponder whether Secretary Teodoro’s words truly reflect his intentions. Is he genuinely expressing his beliefs, or is he an “incognizant and uninformed” Defense secretary, or it’s just part of the ongoing anti-China propaganda hype? Or perhaps it is part of a shrewd and calculated political strategy of Teodoro, following the usual playbook of Filipino politicians aiming for national elected positions, designed to capitalize, harness and leverage the demonization of China for potential political dividends, possibly with an eye on the 2028 national elections, whether he decides to run for president or senator. What an intriguing and interesting political riddle!

Importance of bilateral negotiations

In resolving territorial disputes, the role of bilateral negotiations is fundamentally important and pivotal within the intricate landscape and realm of international relations. If one were to peruse studies and academic literature and review international law literature, one will know that peaceful resolution of territorial disputes is often achieved through bilateral negotiations.

In many ways, this form of dispute resolution is seen to be efficient, relevant and is preferred due to its direct engagement between the disputing parties, offering a way to manage and resolve conflicts that align with the principles of international law, respect state sovereignty and can be tailored to the specific context of the dispute. However, the success of any dispute resolution often hinges on the willingness of the parties to engage in good faith and on an equal footing.

Note that Article 33 of the UN Charter lists negotiations among the mechanisms available for states to resolve international disputes peacefully. This indicates a recognition of bilateral negotiations as a fundamental tool for dispute resolution at the international level. Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) does not apply to sovereignty disputes or disputes over how to delimit maritime zones. The resolution of these disputes is left to the parties concerned to resolve among themselves through bilateral negotiations coupled with multilateralism.

Regarding pragmatic political considerations concerning sovereignty and territorial disputes, bilateral negotiations allow for the sovereign equality of states, a principle enshrined in international law. Through direct talks, states can address their concerns and interests without external interference, crucial when sovereignty and territorial integrity issues are at stake. Bilateral negotiations also provide the flexibility to adapt to the evolving dynamics of a territorial dispute. As situations change, direct dialogue can be adjusted accordingly, allowing for responsive and timely modifications to negotiation strategies.

There are also pragmatic advantages to bilateral negotiations. They can be kept confidential, encouraging openness and leading to more candid discussions about possible resolutions. Compared to adjudication or arbitration, negotiations can be less costly and time-consuming, as they do not necessarily require formal proceedings or the involvement of third parties.

There may be challenges to bilateral negotiations, such as the power imbalance dynamics between powerful and weaker states, or the risks that bilateral negotiations may reach a stalemate. Nevertheless, these can be bridged through open-minded, pragmatic and sincere negotiations beyond the realm of “zero-sum game” and “confrontation,” focusing on a peaceful and diplomatic resolution, and strengthening areas of cooperation between opposing parties.

Why engage China?

Filipinos should reflect on why bilateral negotiations with China are necessary and the motivation/incentive for it.

Filipinos must be conscious and aware of China’s historical and diplomatic approach to border/territorial disputes. Since gaining independence from colonial rule, China has successfully resolved 17 out of 24 border issues, often displaying a remarkable willingness to compromise, even going so far as to relinquish up to 60 percent of its claims in exchange for nonaggression pacts. This historical perspective sheds light and underscores the importance of understanding China’s diplomatic history in handling/dealing with matters related to territorial disputes through bilateral negotiations.

China has resolved territorial disputes with several countries, including: Kazakhstan (1994); Kyrgyzstan (1996, finalized in 2009); Laos (1992); Mongolia (1962); Myanmar (1960); Nepal (1960s); North Korea (1962); Pakistan (1963); and Russia (2004), which even involved the transfer of islets and parts of islands.

From these cases, the lessons learned include the effectiveness of bilateral negotiations, the importance of mutual concessions, and the role of diplomacy and pragmatic negotiations in achieving peaceful resolutions. The resolutions of these territorial disputes involved concessions. They were motivated by various factors, including political goodwill, security concerns, economic interests, trade cooperation, strategic partnerships, and the desire for stable political and economic relations. These factors showcase a pragmatic approach where resolving disputes through bilateral negotiations serves multiple long-term interests, from security to trade, economic development and international relations. Note that the willingness to cede territory or reach compromises suggests that China values long-term strategic relationships and regional stability.

Furthermore, Filipinos must be conscious that China is our vital economic and trade partner and, thus far, is still one of our top sources of investment. In terms of government-to-government (G2G) cooperation projects between the Philippines and China, they have yielded fruitful outcomes, with nearly 40 projects carried out in recent years, 18 of which have been completed. Apart from cash, rice, fertilizers and Covid-19 vaccine donations, an important highlight is infrastructure cooperation such as the construction of China-aid Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge, the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge, the Bucana Bridge project in Davao City, the Dangerous Drug Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Centers, the Chico River Pump Irrigation project, the three priority bridges project (North and South Harbor Bridge, Palanca-Villegas Bridge and the Eastbank-Westbank Bridge) and the Samal Island-Davao City Connector Project, among others, are key G2G cooperation projects between the Philippines and China, which offer and extend real benefits to the Filipino people.

As to technical cooperation, since 2003, the Philippine-Sino Center for Agricultural Technology-Technical Cooperation Program has gone through three phases in nearly 20 years and set a good example of the bilateral agricultural cooperation between the two countries. In this center, more than 120 Chinese hybrid rice breeds have been introduced, and 20 new hybrid rice combinations have been cultivated in the Philippines, eight of which have received the Philippine national certification.


Indeed, to put things in perspective, the most crucial consideration for the Philippines in dealing with its dispute with China over the SCS is to pursue more efforts to work together in building an effective dispute resolution/conflict management mechanism based on mutual trust, understanding and open-minded communication through bilateral diplomatic and peaceful negotiations to solve the dispute amicably and prevent further misunderstandings coupled by multilateralism with the ambit of Asean.

Moreover, the Philippines must make a conscious effort to act and play the part of a rational actor seeking to maximize Philippines-China relations and their utility and functionality in security, politics, economics, trade, long-term strategic interests and international relations to its advantage and benefit rather than be used by an external power to confront China using the SCS dispute.

Source: The Manila Times

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.