A new factor in the South China Sea dispute?

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GIL H. A. SANTOS

THE 30th Asean Summit ended last Saturday obviously—or most probably—with plenty of back-door pressure from China. Asean’s technical and senior officials had to work on the summit’s final official statement issued by President Rodrigo Duterte, representing the Philippines as the chair.

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It was scheduled to be issued Saturday evening after the closed-door summit officially ended at the Philippine International Convention Center here. But the members of the media covering the event waited for nothing. It was finally downloaded in the Asean website early Sunday morning. I read it at 7:45 a.m.

That is not unusual in cases of diplomatic statements or official declarations issued by heads of governments or states. Normally, experienced diplomats and their communications and technical (including legal) experts labor into the early morning hours to iron out their pronouncements in diplomatic language. Responsible newspersons must read between the lines and verify with credible sources.

The 25-page statement signed by the 10 leaders praised their collective efforts to “establish peace, security and stability” in the region towards the improvement of their peoples’ lives.

On the thorny issue of China’s nine-dash claim to almost all of the South China Sea and its military buildup in the Spratlys, the document is silent. However, some very reliable conference sources said there was some heated discussion on this issue.

It appears that after 10 years since China started pushing aggressively its financial and technical assistance to the Asean 10, while at the same time erecting military facilities in seven atolls and reefs it reclaimed—and bullied Vietnamese and Filipino fisherfolk from their respective marine areas—the Asean leaders have accepted the hard facts of life.

That is: the Chinese will merely disregard international opinion or United Nations documents that work against their “rights” as a sovereign state, like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which gave Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines the right to explore, develop and benefit from marine areas as far as 200 nautical miles from their shorelines.

In fact, Beijing last week announced the launch of its second aircraft carrier, the “Shandong,” and understandably keeps its annual military budget and weapons technologies secret.

Anyway, China knows the United Nations is useless when it comes to enforcing international agreements that Beijing has signed. And the fact is, China is now the world’s second economic power building its military muscle because it is in direct competition with the US as the top hegemon in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Asean Summit final communique said on the South China Sea issues: “….We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and overflight in and above the South China Sea. We welcomed the operationalization of the Guidelines for Hotlines Communications among Senior Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the Asean member states and China in response to maritime emergencies in the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and look forward to the early operationalization of the other early harvest measure which is the Joint Statement on the Application of the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea….

“We underscored the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety. We took note of the improving cooperation between Asean and China. We welcomed the progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) by the middle of this year…to facilitate the early conclusion of an effective COC. We recognized the long-term benefits that would be gained from having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and sustainable development.”

This is followed by a reference to the latest development in the Northeast Asian region resulting from a unanimous UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea for violating the denuclearization agreement. Pyongyang, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap, and confirmed by the US defense department, test-fired again last week another unidentified missile which failed again, immediately after takeoff.

This caused US President Donald Trump—who is coming to Manila for the November Asean Summit, as will the dialogue partners, including China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Japan’s Shinto Abe— to utter this can cause a “major conflict” in the world. And US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said China should play a major role to restrain North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un because Beijing has a “unique leverage” with Pyongyang.

The Asean communique urged immediate dialogue of all parties involved in the Korean conflict.

Meanwhile, the framework—not yet the final— Code of Conduct on the South China Sea has yet to be finished, although Beijing announced two weeks ago that it had finished its version. Now the negotiations start between all Asean members and China.

China will be starting from a position of a strong economic and military posture vis-à-vis the Asean 10. The European Union and the rest of the non-communist world are urging the Asean to use the rule of law as a rallying point. This comes from the fact that China does not recognize the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against Bejing’s claim to sovereign territorial rights over the South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ economic territorial rights in the disputed marine area.

But North Korea has entered the picture. What develops next is anybody’s guess. Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

(As in my other columns, I am solely responsible for the views expressed here. These do not represent any of the organizations I work with and the Lyceum of the Philippines University where I teach—Gil H. A. Santos)

gilsmanilatimes@yahoo.com

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1 Comment

  1. duterte sold out the philippines very cheaply.
    in chess parlance, ‘fools mate’. game over.