First of three parts
THE escalating sovereignty dispute between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) has rekindled memories of my involvement in the South China Sea issue.
While serving as Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Department of Foreign Affairs from November 1997 until April 1999, I was also the Philippines’ chief delegate to the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) Intercessional Support Group on Confidence Building Measures (ARF ISG/CBM), the core body of senior officials that discusses the political/security situation of the “geographical footprints” covered by the ARF. The ARF has 27 members, including the 10 Asean states, the US, Russia, China, Japan, North and South Korea, India, Pakistan, the European Union, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The thorniest issue in the agenda of the support group was the South China Sea (SCS) because of the overlapping territorial claims in the area of China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. This issue comes under discussion in the item “Exchange of Views on Regional Security Perceptions.” China always made it a point to project that the area was peaceful and that it was committed to resolve SCS issues by peaceful means. Obviously, the objective was to see the eventual deletion of the SCS issue from the agenda of the ARF and to obfuscate what it was actually doing in the area, such as the repairs or renovations of the structures that it had surreptitiously erected in the Mischief Reef in 1995. China also wanted to convert the SCS matter into a bilateral issue among the claimants. In 1999, Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) came out with a paper stating that China was pursuing a policy of “creeping assertiveness” – a gradual policy of establishing a greater presence in the SCS without recourse to military confrontation.
The ARF support group meets at least every six months in alternate venues, i.e. from an Asean member state to a non-Asean country. Thus, from the inaugural meeting in Brunei in November 1997, the ISG met in Sydney, Honolulu and Bangkok during my watch in ASPAC. The Chinese Head of Delegation (HOD) to these meetings was a petite, bespectacled, young-looking lady from the Department of Asian Affairs of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Having served at the Chinese permanent missions in Geneva and New York City, she read prepared statements with aplomb. She was a firm but sometimes disagreeable defender of her country’s position on the issues confronting the ARF. (She is now the Chinese Ambassador to the European Union.)
In Sydney, during the discussion on the ARF concept of moving from CBMs or confidence building measures stage to preventive diplomacy, she warned against doing it with haste and cited a Chinese proverb according to which rice should be cooked slowly. I countered this by saying that we should not move so slowly that we might overshoot the lifespan of the ARF itself. I added that we are not after longevity and mentioned the following Chinese proverb: “Eat a little less at each meal, walk a hundred steps afterward, marry an ugly woman and you will live up to a hundred.” This brought the house down.
I had quite a tussle with the Chinese HOD at the Bangkok meeting in March 1999. For the first time, I read a prepared statement when the agenda item on regional security perceptions was tabled. I opened my statement by restating the ARF objective of developing “a more predictable and constructive pattern of relations for the Asia-Pacific region” and then moved on to the discovery in early 1995 of structures in a reef (Mischief Reef) located in the exclusive economic zone of a coastal state (the Philippines). I said we cannot help but search for answers why it happened in spite of the Asean Declaration on the South China Sea issued in 1992 and the passage of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In conclusion, I pointed out the need to restore mutual trust and confidence and mentioned three ways of addressing the SCS issue, one of which was to develop a Code of Conduct for the SCS. (On 4 November 2002 at the Asean-China Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the ten Asean Foreign Ministers and Mr. Wang Yi, Special Envoy and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, paragraph 10 of which reaffirms the importance of adopting a code of conduct.)
End of Part 1. Part 2 will come out on Saturday May 9.