• A call for calm and balance in the Spratlys dispute

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    MAURO GIA SAMONTE

    Part 1
    ADMITTEDLY for the Asean members, China scored big in the just concluded 50th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting with their acquiescence to China’s proposed principle for the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea: “effective but not legally binding”.

    One needs a lot of brain wringing to really flesh out the broad ramifications of this doctrine, and in any case, it illustrates the exquisite sharpness of China’s grasp of legalese. Implemented on the plane of international jurisprudence, such grasp augurs a win-win scenario in almost any situation.

    For instance, in the Chinese-Hindu dispute over the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China has long been treading the road to victory with the successful construction of the Karakoram Highway, a high-altitude transport corridor that links China with the plains of Pakistan onward to a new deep-water port in Gwadar. That corridor cuts across Gilgit Baltistan, a part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir which both India and Pakistan claim to be their territory. Over and above India’s protests, construction of the Karakoram Highway got underway beginning in 1959 and became operational in 1979. Since then, the economic corridor signaled its existence as the signature link in the great China dream of One Belt One Road (OBOR) – now on the road to total international acceptance. India’s protest is anchored on its claim over Jammu and Kashmir, and it declares: “No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.” But then again, Pakistan can also say it has just those core concerns as well. Just too bad for India, Pakistan has China up its sleeve.

    At any rate, India’s taking up now together with Japan and Australia the United States position in the South China Sea conflict is quite understandable, and it has a way of highlighting the current frenzy of Vietnam to drum up support from among its Asean colleagues for its protest against China’s fortress-building in the Spratlys. Vietnam certainly must be protecting its own core concern over the island chain, and so must now side with its former aggressor.

    One great gem of thought I witnessed issuing direct from the mouth of President Ferdinand E. Marcos is this: “In politics, there are no permanent enemies. There are only temporary allies.” Vietnam and the US must already have been on his mind when he said that – at a time when the Vietnam War was the greatest conflagration in the world, when the Vietnamese people were subjected to terrific US bombardment day and night. Remember that gory photograph of a girl in extreme terror, grief-stricken and aimlessly rushing down the road in her total, pitiable nakedness, perhaps hoping against hope to escape the terrific devastation in her wake? Who would imagine at the time that such a people so ravaged would one day end up holding high their very ravager?

    Now, on the South China Sea Code of Conduct, how can a rule be effective without being legally binding? Just stuns my layman’s comprehension. But this does not mean that I cannot venture a guess. Does it not simply mean that China has all the prerogative to talk things over individually with every single Asean member without being precluded from dealing in like one-on-one manner with another, and at the same time from acting unilaterally-in any event it is required—against interference from an outsider, say, the United States?

    Back in 2011, at the East Asia summit in Indonesia, President Barack Obama minced no words in telling Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in his face: “We are not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, and while we do not take sides, we have a powerful stake in maritime security in general, and in the resolution of the South China Sea issue specifically — as a resident Pacific power, as a maritime nation, as a trading nation and as a guarantor of security in the Asia Pacific region.”

    Until that period, American policy in the South China Sea dispute had always been one for internationalizing the issue. This is diametrically opposed to the Chinese position of bilateral settlement with the individual Asean member concerned, i.e., the Philippines for one.

    But in the South China Sea crisis, as far as US capabilities are concerned, between 2011 and 2017, is, for an apt figure of speech, an ocean of difference. Though Pentagon officials admit failure of the US reaching a peace agreement with Russia, even conceding the probable outbreak of World War 3 as a consequence, no such scenario is painted in regard to the Washington and Beijing relationship. President Donald Trump has executed a sharp turnabout from America’s touted Pacific Century, which was begun in 2010, to virtual isolationism in terms of active policy. And if the US still indicates some degree of persistence in the attitude expressed by Obama in 2011, it obviously would rather let trusted allies, like Japan and Australia, shoulder the brunt of pursuing that US policy of internationalizing the issue of the South China Sea. Those two nations, therefore, can find good reason to tell Vietnam in the wake of the recent Asean meetings: Welcome to the club.

    Vietnam is the sole Asean dissenter to the Chinese “effective but not legally binding” doctrine. In expressing its dissent, Vietnam vigorously protested the so-called Chinese artificial-island-building spree in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratlys. It went to the extent of fiercely campaigning among its Asean co-members to issue a joint statement ventilating the protest. Turned out Asean is a hard nut to crack. Everybody saw through the Vietnamese hypocrisy. How can it rightly criticize China for its land reclamation activities in the Spratlys when it has been doing just those kind of activities over the years as well?

    (To be continued tomorrow)

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