ON DISTANT SHORE
By Val G. Abelgas
China is becoming more and more aggressive, and is obviously going to use its full economic and military might to press its claim on the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea.
It’s hard to believe that the Chinese frigate that ran aground on the Hasa-Hasa shoal just 65 nautical miles west of the Palawan island town of Balabac reached the shoal by mistake, knowing how advanced navigational instruments are nowadays. The latest incursion was either a provocation or a test of the Philippines’ ability to protect its shores, and although the Aquino government has said it would investigate the incident, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario later said the country would not file a diplomatic protest over the incursion because the incident was probably the result of an accident.
The sudden toning down of Del Rosarios’ statements came just two days after he lashed at China’s alleged duplicity and intimidation.
“If Philippine sovereignty and jurisdiction can be denigrated by a powerful country through pressure, duplicity, intimidation and the threat of the use of force, the international community should be concerned about the behavior,” Del Rosario told the recent meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
He was referring to a recent standoff between Chinese and Philippine boats at a rocky outcrop called the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both sides. Del Rosario said Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance over disputed and non-disputed areas of the South China Sea posed a “threat to the peace and stability” in the Asia Pacific region.
Del Rosario’s harsh words followed China’s recent aggressive behavior in the disputed islands. The latest standoff started when a Philippine Coast Guard vessel stopped Chinese fishermen poaching on Philippine waters off Scarborough Shoal on April 10. The Chinese Navy dispatched ships to the fishermen’s rescue, forcing the Coast Guard to release the poachers, their catch and their vessels.
Since then, China has dispatched various warships to the area purportedly to patrol its territorial waters and the Philippines sent its own Coast Guard cutters. Last week, China reportedly set up a radar station in the area even as the Philippines hinted it might ask the United States to fly spy planes over the disputed area to monitor Chinese movements.
Also this month, the Chinese State Council placed the Macclesfield Bank, which is touted as the largest atoll in the world situated in the disputed Kalayaan (Spratly) and Paracel islands, and their surrounding waters as a prefecture of the City of Sansha. By upgrading the atoll’s status from county level to prefectural-level of administration, China tightened its grip on the contested territory.
Over the weekend, China dispatched a fleet of 30 fishing vessels for a 20-day fishing spree around the disputed Scarborough Shoal, further testing the Philippines’ resolve to defend its sovereignty. The Philippines warned the fishermen to stay clear of Philippine waters, but has not sent any of its Coast Guard cutters at press time to shoo away the fishermen.
A few weeks ago, China warned that any deal entered into by the Philippines to explore or drill for oil in the area was a violation of its sovereignty over the islands to which Malacanang responded that it is ignoring the warning.
In the middle of all these, the Chinese held naval exercises in the South China Sea while the Philippines and the US held joint exercises near Palawan. Taiwan and Vietnam held its own naval exercises.
The Philippines tried to bring the dispute before the ASEAN regional forum in Cambodia last week, but after days of discussions of the issue, failed to get the regional grouping to even just mention that the issue was discussed in the joint communiqué that was traditionally issued after every meeting.
Although it had failed to make the member countries to agree to a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, the Philippines had hoped to at least make it known that the issue was discussed by the group, but host Cambodia, a known ally of China and the recipient of huge Chinese aid, blocked every effort to even mention the dispute in the communiqué, and for the first time in 45 years, no joint communiqué was issued.
Just as it was being bullied militarily by China, the Philippines had to succumb to political and economic bullying in the diplomatic front, where the Aquino government had hoped to make ASEAN agree to a multilateral approach to the problem. China has three known allies in the ASEAN – Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos – whose arms can easily be twisted by its benefactor China to fight for it in the regional security grouping.
A couple of days after thwarting efforts by ASEAN to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict through a Code of Conduct, China issued a statement saying it was willing to discuss such a proposal. Either it was another case of duplicity or the Chinese government is as confused as the Philippines on the course it is taking on the dispute.
It appears certain, however, that the Philippines cannot obtain relief from the ASEAN in the wake of the economic pressures China is putting on some of its member countries, particularly its three known allies. Its failure in the ASEAN should not, however, discourage the Philippines from seeking the intervention of other international forums, such as the United Nations and international courts that settle disputes arising from the United National Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
China is continually testing the Philippines’ resolve by repeated provocations in the disputed waters. The world’s second largest economy continues to grow along with its consumption of oil and other fuels. Just as it is the world’s second largest economy, it is also the second largest oil consumer behind the US, having surpassed Japan. Its oil reserves cannot cope with the rapidly increasing demand by its factories and automobiles.
The number of privately owned automobiles in China is now 23 million, more than double the figure three years ago, and is expected to jump to 130 million by 2030.
Thus, its desperation for oil has become an important factor in its foreign policy. With many of the world’s tapped resources already under the influence of major Western oil companies, China has turned to wherever it can tap into that country’s oil reserves. It is now investing in countries that have oil reserves, from small African countries to the Middle East major producers. Thus, it has supported economically, politically and militarily even dictatorial regimes such as Iran and Syria in order to quest its hunger for oil.
The disputed Spratlys group of islands in the West Philippine Sea (or the South China Sea) is reported to have 18 billion barrels of oil underneath its 26 islands and islets and seven atolls, which if they were able to tap would ensure sufficient supply for their industries and automobiles for decades. The Chinese are also salivating over the disputed area’s rich fishing grounds that can provide the protein needs of their 1.2 billion people.
In addition, the Spratlys group is located right smack in the middle of one of the most important sealanes in Asia, which has been predicted by many as the world’s next focal point in terns of the economy, military and world politics.
The United States is well aware of the importance of Asia in its future as the world’s premier economic, political and military power and has obviously been watching developments in the region, particularly in the multi-nation dispute over the Spratlys group. It has announced that it would send its biggest and most powerful battleships in the Asia-Pacific in anticipation of Asia’s rise in prominence and importance.
The Spratlys, which are being claimed by the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, has become not just a flashpoint in the region, but a potential powder keg. Except for Malaysia and Brunei, which seem content in just watching developments for now, the four other claimants – China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines – have all established military garrisons in the area.
With the continuing standoff between China and the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam wouldn’t want to be left behind. Taiwan plans to expand its existing runway on what it calls Taiping Island, the largest in the island group, which is 860 miles away from Taiwan’s coast. In May, Taiwan formed a special airborne unit capable of scrambling to the West Philippine Sea in just hours, after a visit by three legislators and several top military officers in a trip intended to renew their territorial claim amid mounting tensions in the area.
Not to be outdone, Vietnam’s National Assembly overwhelmingly passed a new maritime law last week asserting Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Spratlys and Paracels, which China said was illegal and invalid. Vietnam has also reportedly increased its boats in the area to 106 last year, up from 42 the previous year.
As I have previously pointed out in an article in May 2011, the dispute over the Spratlys will eventually come to a head, hopefully not militarily. International intervention would not resolve the crisscrossing claims. Only a fair and enforceable agreement among the claimants could possibly resolve the long-standing dispute. The government has to decide now where the Philippines stands on this, and aggressively work for such resolution before the conflict turns into an ugly military confrontation.
Likewise, the conflict between the US and China over military domination in Southeast Asia will eventually come to a head. China is obviously testing the waters in the current dispute over the Spratlys while trying to get a firm hold on the area’s oil and marine reserves. It is important that the Philippine government knows where its position would be when these two events present themselves.