WHEN China sureptitiously took Panatag shoal (Scarborough shoal) from an unsuspecting and naïve Aquino administration in 2012, few suspected that the stealthy Chinese maneuver would set off a series of events and developments that would turn the shoal into a flashpoint for a major-power confrontation in the Asia-Pacific.
Tension has been building up these past few years in the South China Sea, because of China’s unilateral claim to sovereignty over nearly all of the international waters, which are a vital passageway for global trade and parts of which are also claimed by Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, as part of their exclusive economic zones under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
This week, the tension rose to crisis point because both China and the US have taken explicitly hard lines in approaching the developing situation.
First, as reported by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, China has made plans to establish an outpost on Scarborough Shoal, in much the same way that it has built infrastructure and military facilities on certain islets in the SCS (which is WPS or West Philippine Sea to us, Filipinos).
The US response to the Chinese plans was swift and firm. On Saturday, US Defense Secretary Douglas Carter, in speaking at a security summit in Singapore, bluntly warned that Chinese construction on Scarborough would prompt “actions” by the United States and other nations.
Carter declared that Beijing risks building a “Great Wall of self-isolation” with its military expansion in the contested waters. And he also proposed stronger bilateral security cooperation to reduce the risks of a “mishap.”
Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, who heads the Chinese office of international military cooperation, quickly attacked the Pentagon chief’s remarks, telling journalists they reflected a “Cold War mentality.”
Amazingly, allusions to the Cold War may not be entirely inappropriate. They are cautionary, because the SCS/WPS situation could mutate into something similar to the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s, which brought the US and the now-defunct Soviet Union close to military confrontation.
That earlier crisis was fortunately defused through timely and effective diplomacy, and the mutual decision of both John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev to draw back from the brink.
In similar fashion, President Xi and President Obama must rise to their positions of responsibility as the leaders of great nations in the 21st century.
Through statesmanship, they should set a course toward peaceful cooperation and understanding, which other nations can support.
The 21st century is not a time for swashbucklers, it should be a time for innovators and builders.