BY FIDEL V. RAMOS
Former Philippine President
“The South China Sea which connects to the Gulf of Thailand and the Java Sea in the east flows into the most complex series of maritime crossroads in the world. This is Southeast Asia’s maritime heartland…” — National Security Council Report, 15 February 1995
TO many concerned citizens, the Philippine team playing in the “Scareborough tournament” appears to be losing in the “shadow-boxing” bout with China – with time running out. Yet, our side has fielded top national players, starting with President Benigno Aquino III himself as Captainball, plus Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, SND Gazmin, and other officials.
In contrast, the Chinese have put out only their “B” team, mainly: Embassy Spokesman Zhang Hua in Manila, Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing (who is a strong-willed lady), and Beijing underlings.
China’s rigid “U-Line” stand on Spratly/Scarborough issues and China’s maritime maneuvers replicate obsolescent gunboat diplomacy accompanied by soothing double-speak. This way, Beijing maintains a laid-back stance (as if uninvolved). In reality, China’s Central Government is calling the shots from behind dragon curtains, in accordance with a strategic gameplan forged back in July, 1992, when the Manila ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea was promulgated.
P-Noy and Cabinet, on the other hand, have become embroiled almost daily in clarifying Philippine actions re that hotpotato.
N.A.T.O (No Action, Talk Only)
On Scarborough (Masinloc’s “Karburo”) and the larger claims in the West Philippine Sea/Eastern Vietnam Sea/South China Sea, so much verbiage has occupied Manila’s front pages and TV/radio primetime since P-Noy assumed office.
News sources range from Malacañang and DFA, to Congress and LGUs, to Asian experts from think-tanks, and to Zambales and Pangasinan fisherfolk. The noise and ruckus in support of our Philippine position, nevertheless, amounts almost to “N.A.T.O.” (No Action, Talk Only) so far, it appearing that our officials have resorted solely to cautious niceties and fancy ‘abante-atras’ (forward-backward) footwork.
For so long, we’ve been hearing about… “the elevation of the West Philippine Sea conflicts to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.” So, we say: “Don’t delay further. Why not JUST DO IT NOW, since it takes only a phone call or text message to instruct our capable Permanent Representative in the UN Ambassador Libran Cabactulan to do so?”
And, for even longer, the post of Philippine ambassador to China has been vacant because Ambassador-designate Domingo Lee couldn’t hurdle the Commission on Appointments. This is so unfortunate, but it also smacks of poor crisis management in a critical game – where high stakes are involved, and no less than the Philippine team’s best players are needed onsite. Up to now, however, Malacañang/DFA are “still searching” for a career ambassador with proper job credentials. Shouldn’t the search have been conducted long before, and one replacement already earmarked, ratified, posted, and updated on Philippines-China-ASEAN relations? Why not reshuffle some senior career ambassadors in other posts or at the Home Office – since some are overstaying anyway?
Surely, heavyweight China deserves to have a top diplomat to represent middleweight Philippines – not just a junior chargé d’ affaires, even if he is competent enough.
Coast Guards In Civilian Law Enforcement
We revisited last Sunday the historical antecedents of the Philippines’ and China’s claims over the islets in the West Philippine Sea.
We also recalled the apprehension/arrest — in 1995 in the Hasa-Hasa (Half-Moon) Shoal, Palawan – of 62 Chinese fishermen and the impounding of their four vessels for poaching and possession of explosives.
In ASEAN littoral countries and archipelagos, Coast Guards have evolved as strong partners in civilian law enforcement, particularly in border security.
This type of intra-regional cooperation is an emerging global phenomenon – where Coast Guards of adjacent/contiguous countries have forged tighter cooperation and greater visibility in overlapping areas of concern – in such activities as maritime safety, environmental protection, border patrolling, anti-smuggling, narcotics interdiction, anti-piracy/human trafficking, etc.
This new trend was clearly expounded by Sam Bateman, leading Asia-Pacific political-military analyst in his “Coast Guards: New Forces for Regional Order and Security” (Analysis on Asia-Pacific Issues, No. 65, East-West Center, 2003).
“Posse Comitatus” And Civilian Players
Bateman concluded that perceived provocations on national sovereignty, especially along territorial boundaries, are minimized when the Coast Guard is used, since its mission and functions are geared to a common interest in law enforcement shared with adjacent countries.
This current practice is embraced by the international legal principle called “Posse Comitatus” (Latin for ‘Power of the County’) of separating civilian authority and military power in law enforcement.
Accordingly, maritime law enforcement duties emanate from the policy regime established by international shipping communities through their respective country representatives in the International Maritime Organization. In turn, IMO formulates rules by which member-states are mandated to develop stronger border cooperation and peaceful joint undertakings (thereby eliminating irritants on questionable “encroachments”).
In ASEAN, such has long been practiced in multi-lateral maritime/customs operations. And, since 1982, the ASEAN National Police Organizations (ASEANAPOL) have functioned as a closely-knit brotherhood of law enforcers when it was established with Camp Crame as host venue.
In effect, this model of cooperation along borders, once instituted, is foreseen to enhance national security, since it does not involve military interventions that are frowned upon by neighboring countries as signs of belligerency or mistrust.
The notion of “posse comitatus” has its roots in English Law, growing out of a citizen’s inherent duty to rouse fellow villagers to assist the “Sheriff” in pursuing culprits, according to Bateman.
Some may not notice it, but both the Philippines and China are deploying maritime law enforcement (Coast Guard) assets, instead of naval warships, to Scarborough Shoal – probably in observance of the “posse comitatus” principle.
Flashback To Mischief Reef
The “Mischief Reef” encroachment in the West Philippine Sea in late January, 1995, bears many valuable lessons for SCS claimants, particularly the Philippines, Vietnam, and China.
On 24 February 1995, Hongkong Asiaweek’s feature story Islands of Discord reported: “The Philippines feels particularly betrayed. China endorsed a declaration urging all six claimants to pursue peaceful means in resolving their dispute. Signed by ASEAN foreign ministers in Manila in July, 1992, the non-binding document allayed fears of a military confrontation. China and Vietnam figured in a naval battle over the Spratlys as recently as 1988. Manila assured that claimants would maintain, but not expand, their positions. The Filipinos kept to their settlements on eight islets belonging to the Kalayaan (Freedomland) Island Group, of which Mischief Reef is part.
“China shattered those hopes. ‘The Chinese have gone much farther east and much closer to Palawan,’ warned Philippine Defense Secretary Renato de Villa. But Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo stressed that Manila will exhaust ‘all peaceful means in resolving this issue’ – including a possible case before the International Court of Justice. President Ramos made a measured response. Said he: ‘The Philippines views these actions taken by elements identified with the People’s Republic of China as inconsistent with international law and the spirit and intent of the 1992 Manila ASEAN Declaration.”
Continued Asiaweek: “The discovery of Mischief Reef set off a flurry of diplomatic protests, denials, and debate. Summoned by Philippine Foreign Affairs officials, Chinese Ambassador Huang Guifang insisted that his country was not building a military base on the reef known to China as ‘Meijijiao.’ (Aptly enough, mariners call the islet ‘Mischief Reef.’)
“The structures are facilities for fishermen in case of distress, said Huang. Later, Manila declared several China warships had withdrawn from the area, leaving only three vessels. On 15 February, President Ramos ordered more soldiers to beef up Philippine detachments on nearby islets.”
In a subsequent press interview, FVR also countered that if, indeed, Mischief Reef is for distressed fishermen seeking sanctuary, then it should be open and available to all fishermen and vessels that need humanitarian help, regardless of nationality.
At that time, Malacañang’s Press Office released photographs showing four octagonal concrete structures on stilts, each flying the Chinese flag, on top of the 80 sq.km. shoal, and gunboats nearby.
What Else To Do?
So what do the claimant-countries need to do to resolve the impasse, and to move on to truly productive undertakings based on their previous commitments/declarations for a peaceful, harmonious Asia?
We propose that they:
(1) De-militarize the SCS problem by the use only of Coast Guard assets and civilian auxiliaries (scientists, environmentalists, fisherfolk, sportspeople) functioning as a “posse comitatus.”
(2) Make available and jointly maintain safety structures in disputed areas such as lighthouses, anchorages, typhoon shelters, etc.
(3) Jointly exercise their Coast Guard units regularly to enhance coordination and collaboration in law enforcement, search/rescue, and other humanitarian missions.
(4) Organize, among claimant-nations, tourism activities and water sports like scuba-diving, skateboarding, dragonboat racing, and other friendly contests like chess, ping-pong, and beach volleyball.
AREN’T THESE “OUT-OF-THE-BOXING” CONFIDENCE-BUILDING MEASURES? ASK FILIPINO, VIETNAMESE, AND CHINESE FISHERMEN WHO REGULARLY MEET AS ONE ASIAN FAMILY ON “KARBURO” – TO ENJOY THE BOUNTIES OF THE SEA.
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