Drawing the line

China’s moves in the South China Sea have incensed some Southeast Asian nations, and the Philippines’ foreign minister is getting right in the thick of it

Daniel Besant
June 9, 2015
Drawing the line

China’s moves in the South China Sea have incensed some Southeast Asian nations, and the Philippines’ foreign minister is getting right in the thick of it

Illustration by Victor Blanco

“No country in the world recognises that the nine-dashed line is a valid claim on the part of China,” said Albert del Rosario, the Philippines’ secretary of foreign affairs, in a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines on March 26.

Albert del Rosario
Albert del Rosario was born in Manila on November 14, 1939. He attended Xavier High School in New York City, then graduated from New York University with a degree in economics. He worked for many years in business, including in insurance, banking and telecommunications. He served as the Philippines’ ambassador to the US from 2001 to 2006, during which time he secured funding from Washington to modernise his country’s armed forces. He took up his post as secretary of foreign affairs in 2011.

For years now, China has been making its presence known in the South China Sea, a resource-rich region with many overlapping territorial claims – and some of the world’s busiest shipping routes. The so-called “nine-dashed line” Del Rosario refers to maps China’s claim in the maritime area – a claim that encompasses large swathes of the South China Sea, raising the hackles of nations with their toes in its waters and beyond. Recent prodding by China has involved building permanent structures and reclaiming land on reefs with disputed ownership.

Leading the response in the region has been the Philippines. Del Rosario has been shuttling around the region making deals and forging alliances. The latest of these has been a strategic partnership with Vietnam, which many are citing as a smart move by both nations.

“The strategic partnership is a positive contributor to regional security and stability because it shores up bilateral cooperation that would not be possible through Asean’s consensus-style decision-making,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the University of New South Wales.

According to Charles C. Jose, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, such an approach is typical of Del Rosario, who is not afraid to push boundaries.

“‘Reach beyond your grasp’ is the core principle he espouses for all his friends and colleagues to live by, whether in the private sector or in the government,” Jose said.

Well within Del Rosario’s reach is the attention of the US, a country he knows well, having gone to high school and university there, as well as serving a stint in Washington as his country’s ambassador.

The role armed him with solid connections among the US foreign policy establishment, and Del Rosario’s career prior to politics has also provided him with key transferrable skills. His four decades spent in the private sector, in particular, have afforded him the ability to link foreign policy and economic issues with relative ease.

The secretary has some useful links back home too. He escorted then-President Corazon Aquino, current President Benigno Aquino III’s mother, on trips to the US back in the 1980s and early 1990s and has had close ties to the family ever since. 

Despite having the trust of the president, Del Rosario’s cosy relations with the premier and with the US could prove a thorn in his side. “Del Rosario’s pro-American stance, which mirrors that of President Aquino, has made it heavy going for him in his relations with fellow members of Asean,” said Thayer. “Many of Southeast Asia’s top diplomats believe the Philippines has provoked China.”

However, to achieve his aims, Del Rosario could have an ace up his sleeve – international law. The Philippines has taken the matter to the UN under the organisation’s 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which it hopes will provide a solid foundation to bolster its position.

In his speech at the Foreign Correspondents Association, Del Rosario was steadfast. “Even as we face a formidable challenge, we have the law on our side. International law is the great equaliser,” he said. “We are, moreover, in the right. And right is might.”

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