NEWS reports in the Asia-Pacific region last week must have sent serious students of geopolitics and foreign policy makers to deeper analyses and interpretations of the current security situation in the Asean 10 area.
These developments—and their impacts in a timeframe of a decade or two—are especially relevant because of the current 50th anniversary summit meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), under the Philippines’ chairmanship and leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The 10 Asean member states are discussing their final version of the Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea which they will take up with Beijing in May when China hosts the Asean Summit plus 6 (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India).
The COC negotiations have been a thorny issue at the Asean plus 6 over the past 15 years, because it is going to be the final set of governing rules, specifying how they will exercise their rights of free navigation/passage of all ships and vessels in the South China Sea. It will also cover the settlement of any disputes whenever conflicts of interests arise in the area.
But while the ASEAN foreign ministers were meeting in Boracay on the COC, Beijing’s foreign ministry preempted them by announcing that “the final draft” of the COC has been completed. And this was reported by the international wire services and got played in print, audio-visual and internet media.
Certainly it gave the impression to some students of international relations that China was dictating (on the 10 Asean members) the terms of the COC. It took a statement from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs that China and Asean will—to put in simple language, shorn of diplomatic veil—still negotiate the final version in Beijing.
There is no press freedom in communist China, which is commonly known, so the statement of Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo could not be expected to be published in China.
Obviously, the Chinese leadership of President Xi Jinping want to look good to their own domestic political audiences and convince their people that China leads the Asia-Pacific region because this is the “Chinese Century” when they will dislodge the American political-economic-military leadership in the world.
Besides, China has a 9-dash-line sovereign territorial claim to almost the entire South China Sea, so Beijing could not be expected to have acted otherwise. The Chinese even violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which China is a signatory. The UNCLOS stipulates that nations have territorial rights to exploit and develop the sea and its resources within 200 nautical miles from a nation-state’s shoreline.
However, Beijing says its South China Sea claim is a sovereignty right because the area covered by their 9-dash-line (which conflicts with the UNCLOS-recognized exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan) “originally” belongs to mainland China.
Another development came from Taiwan from wire service reports too. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and her government—Taiwan openly does not recognize Beijing—launched their “home-grown submarine project in the face of what they say is the military threat from China.” First delivery of the undisclosed number of submarines is scheduled after eight years but will all be made in Kaoshiung, Taiwan.
It appears that Taipei considers the open sea exercise last month of the China’s first aircraft carrier “Liaoning” in the Pacific Ocean, passing south of Taiwan, as an open threat to its national security. This followed eight years of diplomatic negotiations for a reunification of mainland China and Taiwan, which is now governed by the descendants and followers of Chiang Kai-shek who lost the leadership struggle with Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in 1949.
Taiwan, like Japan and South Korea are the closest allies of the US and neutralizer to China, North Korea and Russia in the Northeast Asian region since the height of the Cold War.
Also last week, the mayor of China’s Sansha City which administers the China-occupied disputed areas in the South China Sea announced that Beijing was preparing to build “weather sensors” in the Panatag Shaol (aka Scarborough Shaol) 80 miles west of Zambales province in the what the Philippines has named the West Philippine Sea, and part of its sovereign territory.
Asked by reporters about it, President Duterte who went into a Chinese pivot (and harshly criticized the Americans) immediately after his inauguration last June, said he could not prevent the Chinese from building anything in the Panatag Shaol, and that he “allowed” the Chinese to explore the Benham Rise in the eastern Philippine seaboard.
However, when Supreme Court Associated Justice Antonio Carpio and most of the Philippine media urged him to “defend Philippine territory as it is his sworn duty as President” he said China gave him their “word of honor” they would not construct anything on Panatag Shaol.
In Sydney, Australia, the wire services reported Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang as saying that China is “not militarizing” the South China Sea but their military facilities in the man-made bases in the Spratlys and the reefs opposite the Philippines’ Thitu Reef “are there to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea where an estimated $5 trillion shipping pass through annually.
Over the past three years, China has built on seven reefs and atolls about 1,300 hectares of military facilities—runways, surface navy ship and submarine ports, hangars, silos and communications equipment.
It looks, on the surface, that China regards “free navigation and freedom of passage” covers only commercial or civilian shipping. Its jet fighters have had close encounters with American and Japanese naval ships and weather observation aircrafts over what is generally recognized globally as international waters and air space above the South China Sea.
Undoubtedly, just like any other nation or people, China will always diplomatically be charming and disarming, offering trade and aid, particularly to the Asean member nation-states. But on the other hand, because it knows it is militarily superior to any of the Asean members, it will always show military muscle whenever it wants to win an argument.
This is precisely the reason Beijing does not want to deal with Asean as a block or a united group negotiating as such. China will deal with its neighbors on the South China Sea dispute on a bilateral basis only, capitalizing on its military arm.
The best solution is to call the Chinese bullying on the trade-aid bilateral relations.
It is in the best interest of the Asean members to consolidate as a supplier bloc to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the US, the European Union (EU) and the British Commonwealth. This is the time even the Russians are offering the Philippines and Asean members trade and infrastructure financial and technical assistance.
President Duterte is due to visit Moscow in May and sign trade agreements with President Vladimir Putin after ministers and technical panels finish their work on them this next month.
Sweden and the EU are looking at investment and trade partnerships now with the Philippines and Asean. British industries will be looking at the Asean members as investment destinations when its Brexit is finalized as the British pound becomes weaker compared to the other major currencies in the market.
Available figures from the BangkoSentral ng Pilipinas show that as of December 2015, our exports to different countries as a percentage of total exports are as follows: Japan, 20.5 percent; the US, 15 percent; Hong Kong (which is part of China), 12.3 percent; China, 9.1 percent; Singapore, 6.5 percent; Germany, 6.5 percent; South Korea, 4.3 percent; Thailand, 3.9 percen; Taiwan, 3.7 percent; Malaysia, 2.4 percent; and others, 16.2 percent.
Common sense will tell us that the combined imports of China and Hong Kong do not compare favorably with the total imports of other countries (including intra-Asean transactions) from the Philippines.
One major Chinese import from the Philippines are metals. That is one pressure instrument our trade negotiators must use against China so we can get the most from Beijing.
Our negotiators must also remember that our Free Trade Agreements (FTA) are not exclusive to China. Our FTA with India is US$79 billion annually, with the tariffs on over 4,000 products were supposed to have been eliminated last year.
Philippine FTA with Australia and New Zealand was supposed to have reduced trade barriers by the end of last year.
India regards Asean 10 as “an important part of India’s vision of an open, mutual, inclusive and rules-based security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region”. Defense Minister Rao Inderjit Singh has said India “wants full strategic partnership with Asean.”
“We intend to meet expectations of our friends within Asean who want India to play a more proactive role in helping address traditional and non-traditional security threats in Southeast Asia, and the wide Asia Pacific,” Singh said.
In short there are alternatives for Asean and the Philippines in dealing with China. This is one message that the Philippines, as chair of this year’s Asean summitry must send effectively across to all the other nine members. We can all negotiate from positions of strength—as we must and should!
Gil H. A. Santos teaches journalism and geopolitics at Lyceum of the Philippines University and is president of the Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management. He is a veteran wire correspondent, editor and publisher.