The People’s Republic of China has apparently decided that 2014 will be the year they push the Asia-Pacific region to or perhaps even past the brink of war for the sake of their obnoxious and irrational claim to the entire body of water now properly referred to as the West Philippine Sea. We say “properly referred to,” because China has earned the affront which repudiating that sea’s traditional name must surely be to that nation’s sensitive self-image, which in turn would not have to be so sensitive if China actually behaved as a respectable and productive member of the global community.
Pettiness earns a return in kind. Nevertheless, the government and the people of the Philippines should be cautioned to consider with the utmost gravity any reaction that goes beyond that. China is clearly baiting the nations of the region into a response that would be regrettable, and give China a claim to the moral high ground it cannot rationally attain on its own.
The latest increase in Chinese provocations began with its announcement of “air identification zones” toward the end of last year, and was followed up by a pronouncement by the regional government of Hainan that fishing and exploration vessels in China’s self-proclaimed “territorial waters” must now obtain Chinese clearance. In the past week, China has descended to new lows by spreading vaguely attributed news reports that it intends to deploy forces to seize the Spratly Islands (known to the Philippines as the Kalayaan Islands) sometime this year.
What is most worrisome about the latest, distinctly troll-like reports coming from China is not that they may possibly be true—they are likely not—but that the Aquino administration has already set a precedent for responding thoughtlessly to China’s goading, and may find the most recent provocation impossible to resist.
It is telling that the warning of a Chinese invasion closely followed (as in, the same day) some ill-advised comments by an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), expressing confidence that the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos) will invalidate China’s claim to virtually all of the West Philippine Sea, when a ruling is issued at the end of this year or the beginning of 2015.
China is, of course, completely ignoring the Itlos case, having long ago qualified its accession to the international agreement by refusing to acknowledge any effect it might have on territorial claims.
The Philippines, incidentally, made the same reservation when it signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which makes the petition to the Itlos somewhat dubious—the Philippines is, in effect, seeking favorable redress on a question which it would not subject itself to if the situations were reversed. To China, that is a strong signal of the practical weakness of the Philippines’ claim to the Kalayaan Islands and other areas. They perceive, probably correctly, that the Philippines would wait until it was covered by the fig leaf of legality by a favorable Itlos ruling before making any strong moves to occupy or otherwise establish a firm presence in the disputed areas. If China could bait the Philippines into making a “provocative” move before that ruling is produced, China could then claim that the Philippines is acting aggressively and ignoring the due process of international law.
The unwise comments of DFA Assistant Secretary Raul Fernandez over the weekend were exactly the signal China needed to attempt its latest ploy.
We can be fairly certain it is a ploy because it is impossible that the Chinese military would permit what amounts to an online tabloid to learn about and share any sort of operational plans. The Chinese are not actually preparing to invade the Kalayaan Islands, but the rumor is almost certainly an officially sanctioned story—since it broke, the government-managed Chinese media has been absolutely silent about it; by the time this column goes to print they may issue a statement, but only after having let the story simmer for a few crucial days.
The Aquino administration should recognize this latest canard for what it is, and demonstrate it can face the China problem intelligently by not reacting to it, at least not in the direct way the Chinese are anticipating. That means, first and foremost, avoiding futile “shows of strength.” As a recent article in the Get Real Post website pointed out (along with giving a very good summary of the history of the West Philippine Sea dispute), the utter helplessness displayed by the Philippine military in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda—ineffectiveness that was all the more obvious when compared to the visibly rapid, efficient, and massive response by the US and other foreign armed forces—is well-known and understood by the Chinese. An attempt to threaten China with the feeble capabilities available to the Philippines may only encourage them to try even more provocative actions. Second, the administration must absolutely refrain from making any more stupid and unjustifiable comments like those offered by Assistant Secretary Fernandez. The outcome of the Itlos arbitration is by no means a foregone conclusion, and statements that might be interpreted as a certain lack of respect for letting the process run its course might have a negative impact, to say nothing of making the DFA look utterly foolish should the ruling turn out to be not in the Philippines’ favor.
The pleasant irony of China’s heavy-handed attempts to cow its regional neighbors is that its divide-and-conquer strategy is failing; the more aggressive China becomes, the more favorable the prospects for multilateral cooperation and solutions in the disputed sea among the nations which, unlike China, have legitimate territorial and economic interests there. The Philippines will accomplish nothing by recklessly acting on its own, and especially not according to designs laid by China.