[Last of three parts]
FIRST of all, forget the idea that China can be pressured to follow the July 12 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling against its “nine-dash line” claim on most of the South China Sea.
As fellow columnist Rigoberto Tiglao wrote last Friday, big powers like America, China and Russia disregard rulings of the United Nations and other international bodies when it suits them <http://www.manilatimes.net/psst-all-superpowers-usually-ignore-international-verdicts/273798/>.
Hence, with China standing its ground, continued confrontation, one of three post-ruling scenarios cited in Part 2, would only escalate tensions, militarization, and war risk. The second scenario of conciliation with China would reduce frictions, but there still needs to be some way of defending the interests and claims of its neighbors.
Hence, the Philippines and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should consider the third approach of collective security. (More on that scenario later.)
On putting pressure on China, while the United States has led Western and Japanese calls to abide by the PCA verdict, it hasn’t even ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea affirmed by the court. Worse, the US Navy routinely and willfully violates UNCLOS provisions to assert Washington’s idea of freedom of navigation.
In a yearly report to Congress, the US Navy lists how many sailings it has conducted in each country to challenge UNCLOS. Guess where the second-most intrusions happen: longtime ally the Philippines, next only to leading Middle East adversary Iran.
Washington opposes the provision granting archipelagoes the waters within their baselines as internal waters with full sovereign rights, except barring innocent passage.
Philippine internal waters include those between our islands and the vast Sulu Sea from Palawan to Mindanao. The Seventh Fleet sails into those internal waters to assert US opposition to our rights under the Convention.
If our leading ally does that, don’t expect China to respect UNCLOS rights it disputes.
The collective security scenario
So what’s this third option of collective security? Under this scenario, the Asean or its selected members collaborate for certain defense needs, instead of relying on big powers. Thus, the grouping’s ideal of neutrality is upheld.
Countries can collaborate for maritime operations to secure coastal areas, fight piracy and terrorism, and assert UNCLOS rights. In the South China Sea, those nations may include Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Collaboration would cover such perennial problems as kidnappings by terrorists like the Abu Sayaff Group in Mindanao. Interdicting arms, contraband and human trafficking would be another fruitful area of collaboration, especially among the naval and marine police forces of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
What about asserting UNCLOS rights over exclusive economic zones and extended continental shelves. EEZs extend 200 nautical miles from a nation’s territorial baselines, while ECSs, which apply to the seabed, stretch up to 350 nautical miles outward.
Excluding the tongue-shaped demarcation of China’s “nine-dash line” claim, the network of broken lines in the map marks out the EEZs of named countries.
To assert EEZ and ECS rights, a nation deploys air and naval assets to patrol those vast expanses of sea and stop violators. If another country’s forces oppose efforts to assert the first nation’s UNCLOS rights, the latter may need to take military action.
In patrolling and enforcing EEZ and ECS areas, small nations can benefit from collaboration, with air and sea patrol work shared, and threats against one nation faced together with its partners.
Thus, collaboration among Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam could include a collective response against hostile forces targeting one country. In such a hypothetical confrontation, the threatening nation would find itself facing multiple responses over a much wider expanse of sea and air.
Moreover, if the hypothetical collaboration includes missiles, vessels and aircraft covering the EEZs of the five cited countries, those same forces could collectively restrict all ships passing the South China Sea on the way to or from the Malacca Strait, the main waterway toward West and South Asia and Europe.
So if a country dependent on South China Sea shipping lanes were to challenge the collective security group, it would find those vital routes constricted. And alternative passageways would pose challenges, too, since three of the hypothetical group members, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, straddle those detour sea lanes.
In sum, the collective security scenario can assert deterrent force over the South China Sea just as the US Seventh Fleet could, operating from the Philippines, but without threatening China itself with nuclear-capable assets.
Can it be done?
There are a zillion ifs and buts that can be cited to sink the collective security idea, and the biggest sinker would be: how to do it.
With nations in the envisioned group having territorial issues with each other, how can they agree to work together in securing maritime rights they may even dispute?
Answer: by resolving those disputes, as Indonesia and the Philippines did along their maritime border south of Mindanao, or setting them aside for now, so as to forge collective security. Indeed, the combined maritime force initiative may accelerate the settlement of bilateral issues.
Another big if is the deployment of military assets and the sharing of security duties. This will, of course, take much time and effort to work out, but with the promise of greater security, national leaders can fast-track negotiations.
Will certain big powers object and mount reprisals against the collective security group?
It’s unlikely that America and Japan would block maritime security collaboration, and most of their forces are far away, unless they get bases in the region. As for China, the initiative is far less threatening than America taking care of regional security.
So those are the possible aftermaths for the South China Sea after the UN ruling: confrontation, conciliation, and collective security. No one course would likely transpire in full, and the actual outcome would likely be a combination of alternative paths.
And the test of any emerging solution is, of course, the silence or loudness of guns across the South China Sea.