By Perry Diaz
President Rodrigo Duterte sent his special envoy former President Fidel V. Ramos to China to “break the ice” in the country’s freezing relationship with China. Well, Ramos didn’t promise anything but he said he was going on a “fishing expedition” and to play golf. But if there was any semblance of success, Ramos made some “progress,” telling reporters: “It’s not really a breakthrough in a sense that there is no ice here in Hong Kong to break but the fish we eat… are cooked in delicious recipes.” The good news is: He brought home the Chinese bacon. But the bad news is: it isn’t worth a dime.
Ramos’ trip to Hong Kong opened the doors for further back channel contacts between the two countries. Although deemed “unofficial,” Ramos – in his personal and informal capacity — was able to communicate with two “old friends” from his presidential days in the early 1990s. One was Fu Ying, a former Chinese deputy foreign minister, and the second was Wu Shicun, the president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies.
In a joint statement, Ramos and Fu said: “Informal discussions focused on the need to engage in further talks to build trust and confidence to reduce tensions to pave the way for overall cooperation.” They also mentioned that China welcomed Ramos to visit Beijing as the “special envoy” of Duterte, who had indicated his willingness to engage with China. The only reaction to the Ramos-Fu-Wu meeting was issued by China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on the ministry’s website. She stated: “We hope this type of exchange can assist China and the Philippines in returning to dialogue and improving relations.”
Wait and see
But a few days after Ramos arrived home, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. issued the following statement: “Right now, let’s give everybody some space. Let’s give everybody the time to reflect. We are not pressured into talking with China. We will wait until China is prepared to talk to us.” Well, who went there in the first place?
While Yasay described Ramos’ trip “a good step forward to open up the possibility of bilateral engagement with China,” he said there seems to be a “hardline” position [by China]. However, he said that the important thing is for them to talk.
It’s interesting to note that during the meeting between Ramos and China’s “unofficial” representatives, one of them emphasized that before joint explorations could materialize, “the Philippines should first acknowledge Beijing’s dominion over the [Scarborough] Shoal.” Huh? Here we go again, folks, China is playing again the sovereignty card that she’s been playing for years.
But to acknowledge China’s “dominion” over Scarborough Shoal would be tantamount to waiving the Philippines’ claims over the disputed territories. That would also render the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling null and void, which would effectively put an end to the Philippines’ territorial claims. It would also be considered an abandonment of her Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) had granted the Philippines when she signed UNCLOS in 1984, which China also signed in 1996. Since both countries are signatories to UNCLOS, all its provisions including respecting the other’s EEZ bind them. Yet, China is ignoring UNCLOS’ provisions. She’s sticking to her “nine-dash line” claim, which the PCA deemed invalid.
Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang Party drew the “eleven-dash line” in 1947 as it was then originally known. When Mao Zedong took over Mainland China and drove Chiang to Taiwan, the “eleven-dash line” was redrawn to the “nine-dash line,” which China recently changed to the “ten-dash line.” However, the “nine-dash line” term is the one that’s being used today. Currently, six countries – Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China – have overlapping claims over a 3.5-million square kilometers across the South China Sea (SCS). The “nine-dash line” encompasses the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal.
Recently, when it was rumored that China was planning to reclaim Scarborough Shoal, the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the area. The Chinese reacted by telling the Americans to “be careful.” When a U.S. admiral suggested that a “red line” be drawn at the Spratlys, an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party’s publication Global Times warned that the U.S. actions have “raised the risk of physical confrontation with China.” Bluntly, it said: “If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea.” Interestingly, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said China should prepare for a “people’s war at sea.”
Indeed, the psychological war between the U.S. and China has reached a point where it could either lead to a “negotiated stalemate” – that is, status quo – or war! While the next American president, Clinton or Trump, would avoid war with China simply because the American people are tired of it, China’s president Xi Jinping would avoid war because he knows China couldn’t defeat America… not yet.
But Chinese nationalism is boiling to a point where Xi won’t be able to control it, while the military would be itching to square off with the Americans. And in China’s communist political system — where there is no place for a weak leader — the only way for Xi to survive until the end of his ten-year presidential term in 2022 is to placate the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from taking unilateral and unsanctioned actions, such as invading Taiwan or the Senkakus… or reclaiming Scarborough Shoal.
But Xi, who is also the General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chairman of the all-powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), has amassed so much power – absolute power — that he might not be inclined to give it all up at the end of his term. Indeed, rumor has it that Xi is positioning himself to stay beyond 2022. The fact that Xi is now ruling as a “de facto” dictator has made many party leaders uneasy and disgruntled. And Xi’s handling of the economy and his anti-corruption crusade that has irked a lot of high-ranking military officials has weakened his standing within the CCP and the military establishment.
Recently, the People’s Daily, the CCP’s official mouthpiece, has been openly discussing “the possibilities of Xi’s life term issues.” With several high-ranking politburo leaders jockeying to succeed him, Xi has work cut out for him if he desires to stay on as “Emperor” of a New Imperial China. And one sure way to keep his throne is to kick the Americans out of the Indo-Asian-Pacific Region, in particular, East and South China Seas. And this is where a new game on the geopolitical chessboard is being played. It starts with Scarborough Shoal, where China is positioning her bigger pieces to move into the Western Pacific… and beyond.
Is the Philippines willing to acknowledge China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the Scarborough Shoal in exchange for China allowing Filipino fishermen to fish in the shoal? But isn’t it rather a stiff price for the Philippines to pay for the fishing rights to her own territory? Indeed, it’s a new game with the same old rule that China has been playing against us: If we win, we lose.