Saving Spratlys: A Consensus of Six in the South China Sea (Last of two parts)

By: Dr Kevin Henry Villanueva

(The author is a pure-blooded Ilonggo and a Balik Scientist of the UP System. This article was also published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer – Ed.)




Six is the mathematical key. It represents China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines—countries that have competing claims in the Spratlys. This feature holds that the process of consensus on the international political regime be circumscribed to direct stakeholders.

Nonclaimants will tend to skew the zone of agreement and alter the variables in the creation of a regime: the configurations of power, individual and collective interest, and the intersubjective knowledge of the negotiators and the governments they represent at the table.

Secondly, while the Asean-China negotiations are presumed to be on course, Chinese reclamations totaling at least 800 hectares show the disparity between the facts on the ground and the rhetoric on the intentions to preserve the “status quo.”

Indeed, the execution of the declaration itself has been marred because of the incursions and standoffs, which have periodically taken place between parties since 2002. How can a code of conduct be agreed upon legitimately if it is based on features which are constantly shifting?

A trust deficit has accrued. Parties must deliberate on zones of agreement (e.g. fishing activity, resource development, transit or movement of vessels) and their permissible levels of exercise, or else simply put a halt to it. These will be determined on the premise that a neutral compliance mechanism will be put in place to report on future deviations in the clearest, most transparent and objective way possible.



The third feature is what I call the razor’s edge: two oppositional forces that produce vitality in regime formation. On one side I see the existence of a “transcendental interest” (a concept denoted by the political theorist Otfried Höffe), which refers to “interests that are necessary in the sense that they are not a matter of choice to an actor but must be pursued and protected if the actor is to pursue any interest at all.”

In this respect, our geography binds us as littoral states around the same sea – upon it our economies have flourished and we have sailed across her waters in all directions, interconnecting our peoples in prosperity over centuries. By protecting this unique ecosystem, we safeguard the well-being of our communities and future generations. Furthermore, by negotiating the terms of its lawful enjoyment, we secure the survival of the state and our status as equal sovereigns.

Consider the recent breakthrough of a regional agenda in the ASEAN Special Ministerial Meeting during the 34th ASEAN Summit, which has motivated the adoption of the 2019 Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris, ultimately raising a warning call on harmful man-made activities toward ecosystem function and biodiversity – and hence, a framework and a platform for the promotion of the protection, restoration and sustainable use of our coastal and marine environments.

On the other side is the “veil of uncertainty” (denoted by constitutional theorists Geoffrey Brennan and James Buchanan). The fact that institutional arrangements apply across a variety of contexts and over an extended period, “both the generality and permanence of rules are increased, (and) the individual who faces choice alternatives becomes more uncertain about the effects of alternatives on his own position.”

The scholar Oran Young supports the contention that such uncertainty “actually facilitates efforts to reach agreement on the substantive provisions of international regimes.” Observe, for example, the list of areas for the institutional design of a cooperation framework. What do the six countries agree on?


Environmental regimes


Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

Convention on Biological Diversity


Multilateral trade and security fora

Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)

Asean Regional Forum (ARF)



Asean+3 (China, South Korea and Japan)

East Asia Summit (EAS)

Earth Summits (“Rio Summits” 1992, 2002 and 2012) are the UN conferences from which the “global green agenda” have evolved.


It is important to note that neither China nor any of the disputants recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, but I think that as a claimant country it must have its place at the negotiating table because stakeholder participation is crucial for winning as wide a consensus as possible. Taiwan is not a signatory to these conventions but is a bona fide actor in APEC and the EAS – its unique identity and singular position in the region can open possibilities.

The South China Sea may be an “ASEAN affair” but the Spratlys is essentially a matter of dispute only among its six claimants. By restoring the centrality of the six countries and by pursuing high-level consultations across a selection of extant regimes, international fora and summitries, and issues, the zone of agreement will be sensitive to national interests, realistically embedded within evolving debates in international politics and will appeal to commonly held values and beliefs. We move away from the preponderance of hard power and come closer to what we might call a Consensus of Six Parties (COPS 6) – not states – on the South China Sea.



Why are we ready to test such a proposition?

First, because war is an unlikely possibility; it will not stand between America and China and the benefits of a strategic economic and security deal. If there is a trait that goes beyond the pale of their modern ideologies, it is a sense of practicality, not to mention a hardy belief in the power of markets. An arms race in this day and age does not sound right, especially in a region that is young, vibrant and is building a community to bridge Cold War divisions.

Secondly, the Philippines is more equipped than at any other time in its history to lead. We are among the fastest-growing economies in Asia and Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (which the world remembers as “Haiyan”) has shown to the international community that we are a resilient people. If the archipelago is now uniting in the South, no less than our islands in the Visayas, we shall then be demonstrating to ourselves that we are maturing into political sophistication.

Finally, the national debate on an independent foreign policy is tormented and confused – it ought not be mistaken as neutrality or neutralism. Independence is about the ability to exercise the freedom of choice: we are allies with America, a neighbor to China and a founding member of Asean. Our relationships with them can be equidistantly unique. It is time to unfasten the leash of colonial consciousness and take pride in our own identity as a nation.



This sea, which is the object of our strife, has always been and remains, however much its reveals the conquest for wealth, power and territory, a collective good. There is a sad irony about our scramble over the South China Sea when you discover the daily practice of local fishermen, whose families have been fishing these paradisiacal grounds for generations: as they cross waterways with other folk, the bounty is shared unsparingly with those who come home on empty baskets.

Why insist that we lord over its dominions, individually?

Those of us afar fail to see that there are no fences. And, indeed, to see the six building them now together may seem an enterprise far less gallant – but one bold move, nonetheless. It would be to cast the net, as it were, on the other side of the boat. A leap of faith and imagination. Open to the prospect of peace and freedom for all who reason. The catch will not be to discover who of the neighbors count among the good but what it is they can do as good neighbors.


Dr Kevin Henry Villanueva is the first Professorial Fellow in Global Politics and Southeast Asian Diplomacy of the University of the Philippines and the national recipient of the 2018 ASEAN Fulbright Visiting Scholar. He holds a Master of Science in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Ph.D. in International Politics from the University of Leeds [UK]. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer under the title “Strategy for peace in our seas”. The views expressed in this piece are his own. You may email him at