23 April 2024 05:24 AM



South China Sea: Fierce US-China Rivalry Spike Tensions, Others "Collateral Damage"

MANILA: The Philippines would seem to have won a major victory against China in a recent international court ruling in the Hague, which voided Chinese claims to parts of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.

In a major rebuke of China’s claim to some 90 percent of the South China Sea, the tribunal’s Permanent Court of Arbitration completely rejected Beijing’s assertion that the land formations and waters in the area have historically fallen exclusively under the ambit of the Chinese state.

It’s said that the Hague judgment benefits not only the Philippines, but all the other Southeast Asian countries that claim other parts of the South China Sea. Some argue further that this establishes important precedents for settling maritime disputes among countries in all parts of the globe.

But the Hague verdict is not an undiluted victory for the Philippines. And at least in the short term, it will not unlock the door to peace in the region.

The South China Sea row is not a simple territorial dispute. In fact, one can say that it stems principally from a fierce geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China, with the Philippines and other littoral states being collateral damage.

One cannot understand why China has acted the way it has without referring to the big shock the Chinese leadership received in 1996, when — after a period of 24 years of thawing and friendly relations with the United States — it was treated to a show of force of two aircraft carrier battle groups sent by the Clinton administration to warn it to back off during the Taiwan Strait Crisis. One of the carriers, the USS Nimitz, sailed provocatively through the Taiwan Strait. This was the largest display of U.S. military force in the region since the Vietnam War.

China’s apprehensions deepened when the George W. Bush administration, even prior to the 9/11 attacks, came out with a National Security Strategy Directive redefining China from a “strategic partner” to a “strategic competitor.”

A lot of the practical implications flowing from that redefinition were put on hold following September 11, as Bush tried hard to enlist Chinese cooperation in the war on terror. Yet many people at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House thought the war on terror and the Middle East adventures of the Bush administration were a distraction from what should be the real strategic thrust of U.S. policy — which was to focus on China as a chief strategic rival.

They finally got their wish when the Obama administration rolled out the “Pivot to Asia,” or Pacific Pivot — often characterized as a thinly veiled plan to contain China — as the grand U.S. strategy in the region.

A central element in Beijing’s response to what it regarded as “American encirclement” was to treat the South China Sea as part of its defensive perimeter. Where China went wrong was in its unilateral moves to implement this view.

Beijing knew that it shared these waters with at least six other littoral states, including Taiwan, with no agreed upon lines of demarcation. It was all too aware that the ASEAN countries had long been pressing for multilateral talks to define these borders. And it was not ignorant of the fact that detailed rules for the demarcation of territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, and navigation had already been incorporated into international law by the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Beijing had ratified.

But despite knowing all this, Beijing began to move unilaterally, first slicing off and fortifying Mischief Reef, which lies within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, in the mid-1990s, on the pretext of building shelters for Chinese fishermen. That was followed by a comprehensive claim in 2009 that unilaterally asserted China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over all the islands and terrestrial formations in the South China Sea and their “adjacent waters/relevant waters.”

Accompanying Beijing’s note to the UN was the infamous “Nine- Dash Line ” map. No official explanation for the Nine-Dash Line was provided at that time or since, though there have been unofficial references to the islands and waters of the West Philippine Sea as ancestral Chinese territories, or to their inclusion in old maps of the defunct Nationalist Chinese regime that date back to the late 1940s.

There are a number of reasons why China has behaved the way it has, but the central one is the strategic decision to make the area part of Beijing’s defensive perimeter against Washington’s encirclement. To achieve this goal, however, China resorted to the big power behavior it has so often criticized when displayed by the West, treating its neighbors as nothing but collateral damage of its increasingly sharp geopolitical rivalry with Washington.

China could have acted differently — for instance by working with ASEAN to craft a multilateral treaty to seal off the area from big power rivalry, along with the initiation of talks on a code of conduct to govern the behavior of parties with claims in the region. In fact, that was something that China and the ASEAN countries had agreed to negotiate in 2002.

Instead, Beijing chose the American way of unilateralism, cooking up nonexistent rights based on the most dubious documents.

The Philippine government was right to bring the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in January 2013, since the appropriate international legal instruments were present to resolve the case in accordance with the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea and other legal precedents.

For many intimately involved in the issue — including me, as a member of the Philippine Congress at that time — it was clear that the law was overwhelmingly on the Philippines’ side. We realized that while it was unlikely that China would immediately submit to a ruling by a Hague tribunal whose jurisdiction it did not recognize, we saw gaining international legal recognition of our rights and the moral authority that went with that as important assets in a struggle that would last for many more years.

But then the Philippine government went off the rails, allowing itself to be suckered into a military agreement with the United States that would again make the Philippines a major launching pad for the projection of U.S. power onto the East Asian land mass — to become part of the grand strategy proclaimed by the Obama administration as the “Pivot to Asia.”

I still have to figure out what went on in the minds of then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to account for their simultaneously pursuing a peaceful legal track in the Hague and a provocative military track aimed at containing the actor we wanted to convince to respect international law. Maybe they thought these two prongs were complementary. If this was the case, then it was a costly misjudgment.

The Philippines and the United States signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) during President Obama’s visit to Manila in April 2014. This agreement of indefinite duration allowed the U.S. not only to rotate troops in the Philippines for training purposes, but also to deploy troops, weapons, and materiel in fixed bases that would be nominally Philippine-owned but where full operational control would be in the hands of the United States .

The Philippines’ main value to the United States has always been its being an ideal site for projecting power onto the Asian mainland, and Washington got this advantage again — over 20 years after Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base were forced out of the county by a combination of a volcanic explosion and rising nationalism. With containment of China being Washington’s new grand strategy, the Philippines became one of the three prongs of U.S. strategy, the others being the U.S. bases in Japan and the mobile naval base known as the Seventh Fleet.

The Aquino administration sold EDCA to the Philippine public as a way of getting the United States to protect the territories we claimed in the South China Sea and our Exclusive Economic Zone. EDCA did not, in fact, provide this, and administration propaganda deliberately and deceptively omitted this fact. As far as Washington was concerned, it could not give the Spratly islands and terrestrial formations claimed by the Philippines defense coverage like it did to the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan.

In fact, Washington’s oft-repeated response to the question of whether it recognized Philippine sovereignty over the islands is that it “does not interfere in sovereignty issues.” It might be pointed out here that Obama’s silence on the Spratlys during his visit to Manila in April 2014 contrasted with his explicit commitment to defend the Senkakus when he was in Japan just a few days earlier.

So what did the Philippines gain? Well, military aid, mainly in the form of World War II-era refitted U.S. coast guard cutters. Amazingly, the Aquino administration chose to forego even asking for rent for the bases the U.S. would use, whereas two decades back we extracted $180 million a year for the Washington’s use of Subic Naval Base, Clark Air Force Base, and several other installations. Even if one thought a military agreement with Washington was necessary — an assumption I strongly disagreed with — EDCA was a bad deal.

By signing on to EDCA, we graduated into a different category: that of an ally of China’s strategic rival.

(Walden Flores Bello is a reputed Filipino academic who served as a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines. He is a professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines Diliman, as well as executive director of Focus on the Global South.)