Briefing on Security: Dealing with China


Fourth in a series covering national concerns: First part of article on territorial frictions

IN pondering the highly charged issue of territorial frictions in the South China Sea, one indispensable ingredient is ice. An icy, clinical disposition, to be exact, unmoved by rabid rhetoric and alarmist sensationalism in media. Rather than raw emotion, critical analysis of strategic interests, geopolitical realities, and policy options is what smart presidentiables and their platform drafters should employ.

The proper starting point in policy analysis are the overarching strategic interests of the Philippines. What fundamental goals does the country have in the South China Sea issue? Certainly, asserting territorial claims and economic rights is one. But there are others, including, of course, avoiding a devastating war with the world’s largest military.

In crafting security and foreign policy, these sometimes conflicting national interests must be carefully balanced to ensure that the hierarchy of priority concerns are followed. Thus, while territorial claims should be asserted, it may not be best for the nation to go to war over them, especially against an adversary with 2.3 million troops, as seen in the graphic from last month’s US Defense Department report, “Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy.”

So what are the paramount national interests of the Philippines which leaders must consider in crafting policies and actions in the South China Sea?

High in the hierarchy has to be avoiding war that wreaks massive damage to the country, especially major population centers and economic assets and industries. Another imperative is securing uninterrupted supplies of such essentials as food, fuel, medicine, basic consumer goods, and industrial raw materials coming by sea and air.

Also high on the national interest ladder are good relations with major trading partners and host countries of overseas Filipino workers, for the economic well-being of the nation and our OFWs. The Philippines also needs to maintain strong defense and diplomatic ties with major powers on which we rely for security and assistance.

Where does asserting sovereignty and territory come in? Very high, for sure, since national security encompasses territorial integrity. But the big question is: How can the Philippines safeguard its territory and economic rights in the South China Sea without gravely compromising other national interests?

Cooperation or confrontation?
National leaders can use this question to assess past and present strategies in dealing with South China Sea territorial frictions. The Arroyo administration sought to enhance ties with Beijing, avoiding direct assertion of rival claims, and even undertook a joint seismic survey. By contrast, the current regime of President Benigno Aquino 3rd has adopted direct confrontation on the high seas, in international forums, and in court.

The stress on cooperation and good relations avoided confrontations in the 2000s. Only in 2009 was there some strain, after the Philippines complied with a requirement of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to define by law the country’s territorial baselines as the basis for demarcating its extended continental shelf (ECS) 320 nautical miles from the baselines.

Beijing protested Republic Act 9522 claiming some islands and other formations in the Spratlys group. But no high-seas confrontations, despite occasional arrests of Chinese fishing in our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Nor did China take over Philippines-held areas or engage in massive reclamation.

Evidently, since Beijing was keen on cooperation with rival claimants, it had to behave.

Aquino gets tough
Under the present regime, confrontation has replaced cooperation. In March 2011, two Chinese patrol boats harassed an exploration vessel authorized by the Philippines. While joint resource exploration came up during his August 2011 trip to China, Aquino dropped it after visiting America the following month. (The US Embassy criticized the 2007 seismic survey with China and Vietnam, so then President Gloria Arroyo complained to her counterpart George W. Bush.)

In 2012, China took over Panatag Shoal after the Philippine Navy nabbed Chinese fishermen allegedly poaching endangered species. In March last year China blocked Philippine Navy boats resupplying marines on a derelict ship at Ayungin Shoal. The next month, visiting US President Barack Obama witnessed the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) allowing American forces to increase deployment and use bases in the country.

Along with the US and Vietnam, the Aquino government has urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to speak against Chinese actions. The Philippines also petitioned the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea to rule if Beijing’s Nine-Dash Line claiming most of the South China Sea violated UNCLOS. And Aquino has campaigned for the international community to oppose China’s activity on the high seas, even comparing it to Nazi aggression.

Lately, military cooperation looks set to include Japan, which has its own island dispute with China. Tokyo has provided patrol boats and other military gear, and extended new loans and economic aid. The Philippines and Vietnam are discussing strategic cooperation. And Aquino has announced military upgrading plans worth tens of billions of pesos, including the purchase of air and sea craft.

Which strategy works?
Confrontation may not outlast Aquino, however. Vice-President Jejomar Binay favors joint exploration by rival claimants, arguing that confrontation would only block development of marine resources. Senator Francis Escudero, a potential VP candidate, has urged bilateral talks with China. And no presidentiable has echoed Aquino’s confrontational line, not even his chosen standard bearer Secretary Mar Roxas.

So which tack is more likely to advance the broad range of Philippine strategic goals, as enunciated above: avoiding a devastating war, securing essential commodity supplies, asserting sovereignty and territorial rights, and maintaining cordial foreign relations needed for trade, investment, and the well-being and jobs of OFWs?

The last part of the article will discuss that on Thursday, along with the increased threat of military attack on the main archipelago itself, not just faraway islets and shoals. Plus: the biggest violator of Philippine maritime territory — and it’s not China.


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