WHAT is important is to understand the underlying motives behind Chinese actuations in the China Sea. First and foremost, China seeks to change the power balance in the South China (West Philippine) Sea to challenge the Obama pivot to Asia.
Chinese motives are both economic and military. It wants control of the China Sea initially, to protect its 18,000-kilometer coastline from seaborne attack, and, eventually, to project Chinese power beyond even the West Pacific to the world’s oceans.
Chinese construction activities on the China Sea serve notice to the world to accept China’s emergence as a first-rank power and its ultimate ownership of East Asia’s maritime heartland challenging US dominion in the area. This also serves the purpose of her “far sea defense” program to protect China’s coastal cities that are booming thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s successful new economic and political development paradigms.
Gaining tactical superiority
China’s first step in this endeavor is to gain tactical superiority on the first island-chain enclosing the China Sea. To operationalize this, it must stretch the outward reach of its coastal air force all along its exposed sea-front – from which (in Xinhua’s reckoning) 470 foreign invasions and intrusions have come since 1840, when the British grabbed Hong Kong.
Airstrips built up from reefs and shoals can extend decisively the flying time of interceptor aircraft that now must refuel while airborne. On the other hand China believes that dredging around the islets could create even full-blown harbors large enough for warships.
It is important to note that the sleeping giant in the Asian continent is now wide awake and beginning to roar. This does not mean that it is ready to swallow all the claimants to the South China Sea. But it is prepared to go on first, second and third gear – that is more assertive without being belligerent. It will not push the envelope too far as to raise the hackles of the US. Nor will it invade any claimant nation like the Philippines which will immediately type it as a rogue nation and court immediate retaliation from the US which has a mutual defense agreement with this country. It will however continue with its constructive activities in the islands in the South China Sea despite US warnings knowing that the US will not go to war over Chinese claims in the sea.
China has not been much of a colonizer even if he has been colonized by the English, French, and Japanese with the help of the Americans and Soviets in the last century.
Having more or less consolidated its position in the mainland after securing its southern borders with the annexation of Hong Kong and Macau and its northern territories by folding in Mongolia, Manchuria, and Tibet, and survived serious border challenges from India in the West and Russia in the northeast, China is now prepared to extend its power and influence in its second line of defense which are the islands in the South China Sea.
There are two major reasons for this – one political and the other economic. Politically China wants to secure its long coastline from predators by occupying the islands and islets in the South China Sea as its second line of defense. It is also conscious of the fact that in international law possession is 90% in winning its claim. On the economic side the hydrocarbon deposits and the rich marine life in the sea is obviously a prized catch.
Bilateral rather than multilateral
China is expected to continue to insist on bilateral negotiations which will allow it to divide and conquer Asean nations while stalling any multilateral negotiations fearing that outside powers principally the US, which heretofore dominated the sea through its powerful flotilla, will hijack these talks.
China’s bilateral strategy will continue to be a combination of winning friends and influencing claimants by dangling such carrots as the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and the proposed New Silk Route, and assertiveness short of belligerency by exerting its sovereignty in the islands through its “constructive strategy” of demonstrating effective control, occupation and administration of some of the islands in the China Sea.
The way forward – Creative Diplomacy
Competing national interests of the claimants of South China Sea prevents a single voice of the Asean against Chinese encroachment. It is imperative therefore that claimants put their act together. This done, the group can then examine the myriad options and solutions being proposed to solve the crisis. This requires above everything else creative diplomacy. Creative and preventive diplomacy can look at such proposed solutions such as the appointment of an eminent persons group acceptable to the claimants , a code of conduct in the disputed sea, the institutionalization of multilateral dialogue, a maritime safety and surveillance, the establishment of a marine preserve etc, These are half-measures designed for confidence building. The political will of the claimants to participate in these is paramount which brings us back to the major problem in the first place. However conciliation, mediation, arbitration through the good offices of neighboring non-claimant nations such as Indonesia and Thailand might break the deadlock.
Unfortunately, given the high stakes the economic and military superiority of China makes it difficult for her to give up her upper hand and submit to a multilateral albeit independent judicial or arbitral body. Indeed China has made it absolutely clear that it will not accept the involvement of outside entities, particularly from the West.
In sum China will not accept negotiations short of direct negotiations whether bilateral or serial bilateral but the Asean could provide a forum and a general framework and specific mechanism for lateral diplomacy. The Asean Treaty of Amity Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) could also act as a unique diplomatic instrument for regional confidence building as well as preventive diplomacy and political and security cooperation. Among the possibilities proposed pursuant to TAC are: negotiation of principles, such as a code of conduct of peaceful dispute settlement; a regional conflict prevention centre; crisis prevention exercises; appointment of a high commissioner for maritime affairs; establishment of permanent and hoc committee or working groups; and more tract-two initiatives.
China has consistently insisted that all the issues are the South China should be resolved through bilateral negotiations. China believes it would be easier for two parties to agree to cooperate than for larger groups and that a web of bilateral agreements can form the basis for a multilateral process and solution.
A multilateral management regime
For a multilateral maritime regime for the South China Sea to succeed it must accept the following principles, objectives and political realities.
The territory sovereignty and sovereign integrity of every claimant should be equally recognized in the regime.
Regional disputes should be resolved through peaceful meanwhile. Provocative military activities, such as the establishment of military bases, and fortification should not be allowed even as construction activities and creeping encroachment such as island hopping should be forbidden.
The principles of equity and fairness toward all countries and all peoples of the region should be adopted in the exploitation of the resources of the sea.
The principles of cooperative regional exploration, development and management of the living and non-living resources of the South China Sea should be the norm.
Enhanced peace and security in the South China Sea.
Creation of a stable, predictable maritime regime for the South China Sea based on mutual restraint, transparency, trust and confidence.
Demilitarizing the Spratly through an agreed, mutual, step-by-step process.
Managing the resources in a cooperative, equitable, efficient, rational and sustainable manner.
Ensuring safe navigation and preventing piracy, drug-smuggling, poaching, purposeful pollution and other illegal activities.
Providing a mechanism for consultations on maritime matters and for resolving disputes among the South China Sea countries.
Under this cooperative regime, sovereignty claims in the area beyond 200 nautical miles would be frozen, and the coordinating agency would eliminate conflict, facilitate exploration and development of resources, manage fisheries access to the “area” would be equally available to all claimants. The legitimate passage of vessels would be allowed.
Creative diplomacy should be maximised towards the solution of the South China dispute.
It calls for conflict resolution that prevents existing disputes from escalating into clashes and limiting the spread of conflict when it occurs. This requires persuading the parties to work closely and cooperatively for conflict prevention, management and reduction. It requires efforts to sustain a co-operative spirit.
Creative diplomacy should focus on avoiding or ending violence by revolving the most immediate and overt dimensions of conflict while seeking to remove the resource of conflict altogether. Admittedly the process is a high hanging fruit and long term process which may require fine-tuning from time to time depending on circumstances and even changes in the goals, perceptions and attitudes of the conflicting parties.
An Eminent-Persons group
Creative diplomacy could be more effective, according to some observers, if a small group of carefully selected influential persons might be convened for a series of meeting to discuss and recommend solutions to the disputes.
This “Committee of Eminent Persons” might be led respected leaders from non-claimant regional countries, such as Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. Moreover an institutionalized multilateral dialogue could be initiated to supplement the above initiative.
A Code of Conduct
A Code of Conduct for the South China Sea has not been taken up seriously by China from the look of things. This does not mean however that the Asean should give up the idea. The Code should include specific measures for preventing conflict over fishery disputes or accidental military encounters. Such provisions could cover incidents involving warships, military aircraft and naval auxiliaries; identify navigational rights; permit surveillance, but not in such a way as may embarrass or endanger the platform under surveillance.
Once a Code of Conduct is agreed on, the claimants could consider measures to transform the area of dispute into a zone of cooperation, first for fisheries, with gradual demilitarisation and eventual multilateral development of such resources as hydrocarbon and other mineral resources. More importantly it can provide for a South China Sea maritime safety and surveillance regime and coordination among claimant countries.
In the meantime this country should not let its guard down and it should continue to rely on the mutual defense agreement with its ally the US while cultivating security arrangements with friendly neighbors like Japan, Vietnam and whoever. In the case of the US however it would be enough for the US to give this country a credible defense force without insisting on American boots on Philippine soil which would appear to the Chinese as acts more aggressive than defensive. Moreover the stationing of military hardware manned by Americans in our soil would be a magnet for Chinese attack in case the pushing becomes a shoving match between the two superpowers in the area. Last but not the least military preparedness at home is an urgent necessity starting with a revival of a citizens army like the ROTC.