IN the Book of Genesis, God said, “let the waters teem with living creatures…so God created the great creatures of the sea and every living creature with which the water teems and moves about in it according to their kind…” Unfortunately, the Lord did not parcel off parts of the sea to countries. Had He done so, it could have saved the world a lot of litigation.
Thanks to the superpowers, in the past seven decades or so this country did not own anything – mostly because we were always owned! For almost four centuries we were owned by Mother Spain which sold us for $25 million to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. So, the goes, after centuries in a convent, we became part of Hollywood for 50 years. Spain originally obtained control of us through the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 where Portugal and Spain, the two maritime superpowers, cut up the whole world between the two of them in a Pope-sponsored demarcation line (actually we should have gone to Portugal if they adhered strictly to the demarcation). The ownership of the seas by maritime superpowers was to be challenged later by Her Britannic Majesty’s royal navy which allowed Great Britain to rule the waves in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
America’s expansionist strategy
After World War 2 which allowed the US to create a formidable military-industrial complex allowing it to have dominion from sea to sea, America began to rule the waves both in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. While the formidable armada called the Sixth Fleet dwarfed the European navies, the Seventh Fleet now dominated the great Pacific Ocean, having completely demolished Japan’s imperial navy during World War 2. This suited America’s expansionist strategy to dominate the region both politically and economically using as her justification the need to contain communist advances which they predicted would produce the” domino effect.” She thereby ringed the Asian continent with a string of bases which effectively contained China.
It was in August 1945 that Gen. Douglas Macarthur excluded Allied powers from occupying Japan. He was also behind the division of Korea at the 38th parallel and Vietnam at the 16th parallel and the attempt to unify China under the Kuomintang Party of Chiang Kai-shek. Indeed, it can be said that American policies during that period greatly influenced, if not shaped, the international relations initiatives in East Asia and the rest of Asia Pacific. This influence rapidly waned when despite the US backing the Chinese Nationalist Army had to evacuate to Taiwan; the Korean War only produced a stalemate between the Chinese-backed North and the US-backed South; and the Vietnam War was clearly a North Vietnamese victory despite enormous US casualties of war.
US withdrawal creates a void
Against this background a war-weary US citizenry called for an end to US military adventurism in the Asia Pacific. The US retreat from the area was dramatized by US withdrawal from its biggest naval base in the world—Subic, home of the Seventh Fleet and Clark, the biggest air force base outside the US.
The void created in the Asia Pacific provided a window of opportunity for the sleeping giant up north whose breakneck development efforts dramatically catapulted it to an economic power within record time. With its growth corridor located in the soft underbelly of the Chinese continent exposed to the ballistic missiles of the Seventh Fleet and the US bases containing it, and paranoid that the narrow Malacca Strait through which $5 trillion of trade passes en route to East Asian countries which could easily be blockaded by the enemy, the Chinese scrambled to modernize its armed forces to the point of joining the nuclear club in record time. In the process, it also militarized the small islets in the South China Sea despite the ruling from international maritime authorities that this violated the UN law of the sea.
The Chinese justification was that they, in fact, owned the China Sea by virtue of the nine-dash-line theory and even going back to history – its control of the maritime space as the Middle Kingdom even before the Spanish and Portuguese cut the world in half and the seas surrounding it. Moreover, they argue that they need to establish the freedom of navigation given that China is very dependent on imports from East and West to sustain its development momentum. The reclaimed lands would then serve as observation posts tracking down the movement of the enemy’s surface ships and submarines and of the dozens of US bases stretching from Guam to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. This is the reason why China will resist any effort to stop its activities in the South China Sea which they consider as amounting to an act of war. In effect, the game plan is to produce a strategic stalemate in the China Sea by creating a formidable maritime Great Wall to protect itself from the enemy.
Needless to say, this does not sit well with the other claimants to South China Sea region, to wit: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. In this country today, there is a surge of nationalism or irredentism which fights to preserve the integrity of the archipelago which Filipinos fought so hard for centuries to preserve, and after so much blood was spilled during the insurrections during the Spanish colonial period, the Philippine-American war and the fight against the Japanese invasion and occupation. This sentiment is described by the Italian phrase Filipinas Irredenta, a policy to redeem parts of the archipelago which have been severed from the body such as the West Philippine Sea and Sabah.
But how do we accomplish this. There are two schools of thought. One is make a lot of noise like the dog barking at the moon which unfortunately to this day has not proven to be effective mostly because the Chinese use of soft power has been shown to be more effective than the US saber-rattling hard power threats (which has not worked against North Korea). China’s soft power policies such as aid programs, loans from the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank and the one-belt-one road initiative has totally mesmerized our Asean allies who do not even want to put the South China Sea issue on the agenda. By going bilateral and dealing country by country offering the carrots – port facilities, transport systems and other infrastructure projects. Our relatives in the Asean prefer a win-win situation rather than a zero-sum game on the SCS issue.
On the part of the US, since it is an outsider in the region, it cannot be too assertive. This is the reason why it cajoled the Philippines into taking the SCS issue to UNCLOS of which the US is not even a signatory. It has clearly avoided the Thucydides Trap and opted to play ball with China to the point that it did not even stop China from its reclamation activities while pointing out that the SCS issue was outside the scope of the 1950 Mutual Defense Agreement that binds the US and the Philippines militarily. This non-interventionist attitude is reinforced by the fact that the US, paranoid about North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the US, wants China to rein in its protégée.
So where does this leave us? President Duterte has followed the line of least resistance opting for a win-win situation. He is probably following Sun Tzu’s advice to win the war without firing a shot. Some progress was made in the Asean Summit when China after ignoring the 2002 Code of Conduct in the West Philippine Sea promised to revive the proposal. Of late she has also offered a joint exploration of the resources of the sea. Some observers suggest a condominium style regional management of the area by this joint marine–biology research and energy exploration. With Chinese cooperation, the vision of the Zone of Peace Freedom And Neutrality (ZOPFAN) can finally be realized in the SCS or WPS. The area can be converted into a maritime Silk Road that connects Asean with the rich Chinese continent. Rather than build another Great Wall, China can produce a mighty maritime highway that can ferry goods and services more effectively to and from Southeast Asia.This will be in stark contrast to Trump’s great wall that is designed to keep Mexicans out of the US.