• Reality check in the South China Sea


    The South China (West Philippine) Sea tensions will again come up in the 26th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit on April 27-28 in Kuala Lumpur and the resort island of Langkawi. Amid the usual flurry of controversy, now stirred by China’s reclamation and building in disputed areas, a reality check is in order.

    Reality No. 1: China will not sign a binding Code of Conduct that limits its force deployment in the South China Sea with no effect on America and Japan.

    Enacting a binding Code has long been Asean’s goal, and China went along for some years, even hosting meetings on the draft pact. But it was always iffy whether Beijing would accept a pact restricting its military deployment with no effect on non-signatories America and Japan. Especially with a huge portion of Chinese trade, including four-fifths of oil imports, passing through that vital sea vulnerable to naval interdiction.

    Making Beijing even more reluctant to sign the Code is increasing US military deployment. Washington’s Pivot to Asia policy aims to shift 60 percent of naval assets to the region. And under last year’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines, many more American warships, submarines and aircraft can operate in the country, well within cruise missile range of not only Chinese shipping, but China itself.

    In addition to these security concerns about the US Navy are, of course, China’s territorial claims. Chinese encroachments paused somewhat after its 1995 takeover of Mischief Reef. In the 2000s there were moves toward joint undertakings among rival claimants, leading to the China-Philippines-Vietnam seismic survey in 2007.

    But rivalry intensified since 2011, with confrontations over Scarborough and Ayungin Shoals, plus Sino-Vietnamese frictions over oil exploration in the Paracel Islands. Now, with the Philippines suing China in the United Nations over maritime claims, and the US expanding its naval deployment, China has even more reason to build up facilities, especially those near the Philippines.

    China may agree to the Code at some point, when it has enough sea structures for its security needs. Other factors that may make Beijing amenable are a more capable blue-ocean navy less dependent on outposts on the high seas; a reduction in American forces, especially those in the Philippines; and expanded land transport links to Southeast Asia under China’s New Silk Road plan, which would make the naval threat to seaborne trade less worrisome.

    Reality No. 2: Asean will not take on China.

    Under President Benigno Aquino 3rd, the Philippines has sought to get Asean confronting China over security issues. But there are strong reasons why the grouping will stick to its non-aligned stance which has been a core tenet since its inception in 1967, espousing the region as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality.

    First, China has been good to Asean, for the past three decades, at least. Under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s reforms since 1978, Beijing stopped supporting Maoist rebels in Southeast Asia. It backed Asean in opposing Hanoi’s occupation of Cambodia in 1979, even mounting a brief war with its southern neighbor. And in 1990, diplomatic ties with Asean leader Jakarta, cut since a failed coup by Indonesian communists in 1965, were restored.

    During the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis, while the West imposed stiff loan conditions, China provided unconditional support by not joining the regionwide currency devaluations, even if its competitiveness suffered. The following decade, Chinese trade, aid and investment in Asean trebled, helping recovery.

    Second, in the South China Sea, where China has had conflicts with Vietnam and the Philippines, there have been moves toward amicable ways of dealing with disputes. As noted earlier, during the Arroyo administration, joint projects offered a mode of developing resources while downplaying rival claims.

    Aquino too discussed joint exploration during his China visit in August 2011, but did not pursue it after his US trip the following month. Meanwhile, Vietnam and China, which have fought several battles since the 1970s, recently forged a pact on resolving issues.

    Third, no country wants to make an enemy of the world’s emerging superpower, whose economic, geopolitical and military might would keep burgeoning for decades. Asean saw what happened to Cuba when it became an enemy of America for over half a century until US President Barack Obama ended hostile policies only last December.

    In recent years, Asean got a further reminder of what it would lose by opposing China. It offered massive infrastructure financing through the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has attracted even US allies to sign up.

    Amid all that, why would Asean deviate from its age-old neutrality? Indeed, not taking sides has been crucial to its clout, without which it would fragment into rival camps ruled and exploited by big powers.

    Reality No. 3: The Philippines’ confrontational stance may end with Aquino’s term.

    Even the Philippines may find its confrontational policy toward China ending when Aquino steps down on June 30, 2016. No top presidential contender has taken up his strong rhetoric.

    One top contender favors joint exploration in disputed areas, noting that tensions prevent harnessing resources. Of the US alliance the presidentiable noted that the Mutual Defense Treaty does not guarantee military action to defend the Philippines, unlike the NATO pact protecting Europe.

    With the looming presidential change, the Americans recently offered advanced weaponry. But no amount of firepower can justify the EDCA pact exposing all of the archipelago to attack, due to the presence of US forces threatening China. Especially since those forces have never ever helped in our territorial frictions.

    Under new leadership, the Philippines can improve relations as Vietnam has done. And if EDCA is scrapped, China may agree to limit its expanded island facilities to peaceful uses like scientific study, maritime relief, and tourism.

    Until then, sit tight, and don’t fan the flames if troublemakers light new fires.


    Please follow our commenting guidelines.


    1. Ikabod Bubwit on

      At least 10 of the 14 Billionaires in the Philippines are Chinese. They practically owned the Philippines. Now their mother China is building military structures in the West Philippines Sea and you could not even hear a whimper from these fucking Billionaires.

      During Spanish times the Chinese in the Philippines did the dirty jobs for the Spaniards. With the coming of the Americans they did the same thing. The presence of Chinese businessmen (supposedly Filipino citizens) in the Philippines
      is probably the biggest yoke on the neck of the Filipino people.

      The main source and strength of Chinese business is smuggling. It is time for the government to check the legality of many Chinese in the Philippines with very many of whom arriving during Martial Law (you must remember that Marcos is at least 75% Chinese (but doesn’t wear a pony tail !!!).

      The Chinese is a security threat to the Filipino people – both external and internal !!!

    2. puebloerrante on

      the problem though is if we deny the US their foothold, they will opt to support the insurgent rebels in mindanao.

      i think the path to stay clear of the two mountains clashing together is to give the US an OFFSHORE base near the spratlys area.

      this would prevent china’s expansion, while removing the US’ intent to support the mindanao rebels, just to get their philippine foothold.

      an offshore base is a small price to pay compared to the benefits.

      i’d rather we focus first on the malaysian-backed insurgency in mindanao and just let the US deal with the issue against china. at least until we finally put a stop to the mindanao insurgency. (no, BBL isn’t a real solution. it’s just a trojan horse or a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode at an inopportune moment of weakness)

    3. Geo-politics begins with an understanding of the protagonists, and their respective motives/objectives.

      The main game is between US and China. Everyone else is a supporting act of varying importance, and the other issues are simply a play, a piece of the jigsaw, a diversion, or an irrelevance.

      The objective for both china and US is economic dominance in asia, and, as far as china is concerned, also in africa and the middle east. China knows that political power is driven by economic power. It has built its base over the past 20 years, trained well, thanks mainly to western universities, and is now starting to flex its muscles. I can remember visits and briefings in bejing 25 years ago, which now are coming to fruition. China now has more patents than the rest of the world put together. The days of copying have gone and the best/worst is yet to come.

      The US have been caught flat footed – partly because it has been embroiled in other issues, partly because it never had a clear/comprehensive strategy, and partly because china suddenly put its foot on the gas, no doubt recognising that the US was in dis-array, and its timing was perfect. All the more so now that US will be distracted by an election and a new administration. An 18 month open goal for china. China are past masters in strategising, planning, and negotiation. Washington is in panic mode.
      Its central policy – TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) – is likely dead in the water, with all eyes now on japan to try and save it, but without TPP the US economic dominance in asia will begin to erode. The next 2 years are a pivotal time in how the new world order is likely to play out long term, particularly in asia/pacific rim.

      The recent US approach to the Asian Investment Bank was an embarrassing disaster and gave Washington a wake up call, particularly because it was welcomed and supported by Europe, and nearly all of asia. Now it is all hands on deck, so expect more rhetoric, initiatives, and war games, but i think too little too late.

      China played clever, as i know from my time in africa. The US place inordinate demands upon countries, tight contractual agreements, western thinking, and reflect a typical neo-colonial stance, and an approach ‘ruled’ by lawyers. China places few such constraints, builds upon mutual respect, and recognises local cultures, but may well have their own ways of enforcing contracts! The reality is that suddenly smaller/emerging countries with potential have another option and the US is paying a price for a monopolistic historical attitude. Europe smiles from the sidelines – it plays a win-win game these days.

      For china, the philippines is not the issue in terms of sovereignty/invasion etc, nor is it the oil, which china can buy cheaply from a variety of sources, and no doubt could find/has found reserves in its own vast lands, which would be easier to extract than deep sea. China thinks big. Its goal is to create new silk roads – land, sea, and air(waves).
      The recent/proposed investment in pakistan is an example of just one piece in the jigsaw – 46 Billion dollars! – more than the philippines annual national budget. China’s total foreign investment will exceed 1 trillion dollars by the end of this year, and is for the first time investing more outside china than inside.
      And when you map where that money goes it almost paints a picture.

      The maritime dispute concerns the sea going ‘silk road’ which clearly the US do not want, economically and militarily, but many ASEAN countries are ambivalent, and some welcoming a new rebalancing of the world order in asia.

      The philippines is still doing what the US wants. China does not respect that, or trust the philippines. The philippines needs to firstly establish its own strategy, on everything, and enter bi-lateral discussions. But also it is far from top of the agenda.
      50% of the philippine top1000 companies are owned by chinoys , and 7 ex 10 billionaires, so china already has the power it needs. More if binay is elected! Ironic how pnoy aquino can give away chunks of mindanao and sabah, but look foolish over a few rocks. Big mistake. In fact 2 mistakes. And 2 wrongs do not make a right.

      Everything is connected, like 3Dimensional chess. The art is to see the cause and effect.

      The tone and content of the communique from the ASEAN meeting will be watched with interest as a sign of things to come.
      If the philippines does not get a strongly worded concensus, then it is on its own. It is also a risk to ask for such a thing if you are not very sure of getting it. Maybe another diplomatic faux pas in the making.
      Small countries do not bite the hand which feeds them, but america does not feed the philippines. It just throws it some crumbs, and ‘backhanders'”for politicians.
      A new order in asia should signal new thinking in the philippines.
      In reality the philippines has to have a ‘hedge’ strategy, but that is more challenging, and too many politicians like to take the easy option, abdicate resonsibility, or avail of the perks of free medical treatment in the US!

      Read The Diplomat for geo-political insights. Read Mckinsey for strategic insights.

      • i share the sentiments here in my brief postings in facebook. very good analysis. thoroughly articulated.

    4. Bert O. Romero on

      Your commentary on the raging PH – China confrontation in the South China Sea is timely and sober. We need more of this kind of analysis cum backgrounder if only to help this current administration navigate its way in this fast deteriorating conflict with the second economic power in the world which at the same time is transforming itself as a credible military power. Economically and militarily, diplomatically and politically, the Philippines, despite its confrontational rhetoric under President Pinoy and his directionless foreign secretary, del Rosario, remains a Pygmy vis-a-vis the giant PROC.
      The Chinese have a saying that when one crosses a river, his feet should feel the stones underneath. Meaning one should be careful and wary in dealing with other countries, whether friends or potential enemies. This is an adage which unfortunately Aquino and del Rosario wantonly disregarded by completely abandoning any possible accommodative approach with China. The two disregarded well-intentioned advices by fellow ASEAN member countries to temper their anti- China rhetoric to leave the doors open to negotiation. The Philippines was left alone in its confrontational approach with other ASEAN countries distancing themselves. When Cambodia was the chair of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, it resorted to the unseemly device of turning off the microphone of del Rosario in the middle of his speech ostensibly due to technical problems. It turned out later that the move was with the consent of the other members of the Association aimed at tempering del Rosario’s vehement anti-China rhetoric and signaling to China that the Philippines was alone in its confrontational approach. That was an instance where technological backwardness was utilized to serve a higher cause. Indeed Vietnam, a much more militarily robust country than the Philippines, has kept its doors open to China for bilateral discussion while not abandoning its claims to some islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam’s steadfastness in its claims cannot be doubted after fighting for more than thirty years against foreign aggression. Truly, Vietnam will not turn its back to Ho Chi Minh’s exhortation that there is nothing more precious than freedom and independence. And it’s leaders are pursuing their claims with more sophistication than our own Aquino and del Rosario.
      Of course, this pair of our leaders have been assuring the Filipino people that there is nothing to fear because the US will defend us. But again as you correctly pointed out, the Mutual Defense Treaty does not guarantee automatic American response to military aggression against the Philippines. American response will be in accordance with ” constitutional process” which simply means congressional passage of a law declaring war. With both houses of congress currently under the control of the Republicans, it is highly problematic if President Obama can muster the needed votes
      to pass the required law! Look at the executive initiatives to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba or the framework agreement withIran on nuclear weapons or President Obama’s pivot to Asia policy, there has been no subsequent movement to implement
      these initiatives due to absence of bipartisan support. Enough now of relying on American support to our claims in South China Sea.
      PH-PROC relations are right now at a very delicate stage thanks largely to our president and foreign secretary. At the very least, they should try to mend these relations before they leave office next year. This they owe the Filipino people.

      • aquino and del rosario are rabid lap dogs of the americans. they have not been acting in the interest of the philippines but the interests of their masters. time and again, their confrontational approach towards china has been rebuffed by the ASEAN as a whole and yet they persist, egged no doubt by their masters.

    5. Crisostomo Ibarra on

      This guy is suggesting that the Filipinos give up their interest in the west Philippine Sea and hope that China will give us a fair deal. I see a pattern on how we Filipinos think and negotiate. No wonder other countries take advantage of this behavioral patterns.

    6. chthonic monster on

      come on cut the crap! the Filipinos buy cheapo products from the chinks! it’s a shitty product but then it’s so cheap! the chinks also killed the Christmas tree lights by making it so unsafe to use it’s a main cause of household fires.
      literally the chinks have been stealing the Philippines piece-by-piece, the black sand mining have been there for ages and still continues to the present. so WTF, the chinks will soon take over the Philippines whether we like it or not! can this be stopped? how? by diplomacy? damn the chinks will sign any treaty in the world and then ignore it!

    7. There are several conflicting claims in the south China sea but for some reason our governtment is the noisiest against China starting with statements of “what is ours is ours” from both the Secretary del Rosario promptly echoed by pnoy. What disturbs me really is the seeming encouragement of the U.S. (inuuto-uto) to put this country in a war footing stance with offers to provide our military with modern weaponry. Goodness our military can’t even defeat the MILF and BIFF etc. in Mindanao how would anyone ever think that we can take on China if we were (heaven forbid) invaded. Let’s stop being taken for a ride by these Americans they are the biggest debtors of China with China holding US debtor bonds so massive that if China suddenly unleashes these bonds into the international market (which China has threatened) the American economy and currency will collapse. Why would we think that America will come to our aid like a big brother if war breaks out between us and China let’s face it between us and China if it becomes a real choice who do you think will America favor? What I might suggest is a toning down of our noise and siddle up closer to China because it is obvious and it does not require an economics degree from Harvard that in Asia China will soon and inevitably be the economic giant to reckon with. We will be the laughing stock of ASEAN when we find ourselves left behind and still clinging to the apron strings of America. Someone advised me to begin unloading dollars in exchange for renminbe which will in the next 5-10 years will be the dominant international currency. Somethings to think about as we contemplate who to support and vote for next election.

    8. sonny dela cruz on

      Filipinos should start boycotting products labeled MADE IN CHINA. The money you spend for their products are for more arms against the Filipinos, maybe sooner or later your sons and grand children’s life will be taken away. The Philippine government cannot do anything because there’s no means to stop the Chinese now Philippine Armed Forces is too weak and no modern armaments,. that is why Filipinos should do some Patriotic duty by not patronizing their products. I don’t know if breaking diplomatic relation with Communist China will do the job of stopping the flow of Chinese products in the Philippines, but Filipinos should wake up and do something about it.

    9. Eddie de Leon on

      I can’t understand how you can write certainties like “With the looming presidential change” and “Under new leadership, the Philippines can improve relations as Vietnam has done.” The 2016 elections — unless a radical People Power Revolt and the OCCUPY COMELEC called for by your newspaper takes place and succeeds–will be the same as in 2010 an 2013. They will be fraudulent and UNTRANSPARENT. The Comelec-approved and BSAquino-supported and protected Smartmatic Automated Election System using PCOS machines will again be used in 2016 with all the requirements of our Automated Election Law ignored and violated. The illegal elections will yield PCOS machine results from all precincts making the candidates of BS Aquino and the Liberal Party win the presidency, the vce-presidency, the senatorial seats, the membership of the House, and the governors and mayors,
      Your yuorself wrote a column arguing that the No 1 and First problem to be solved is the lack of integrity and untransparency of our elections because of the Smartmatic AES-using PCOS machines. But now you seem to have forgotten that very important point about our national life.
      I’m sorry tobe so critical, Sir Ric Saludo. You are one the best Filipinos. But please don’t help make Fi8lipino drop their guard against PCOS machines.

      • agree ako eddie de leon that what mr saludo is hoping for is not in the cards if and when the hocus pcos machines were allowed to do its thing — electronic dagdag bawas. for sure, sadly, the candidate of boy sisi will win if we allow the hocus pcos machines to be used by the comelec mafia. i hope the occupy comelec campaign of manila times push thru and succeeds in its objective in discarding the magical hocus pcos machines and for us to get what we elected, good or bad. until then the policy of boy sisi of direct confrontation with china while buying all the heavy equipment we require from china will still be in play.

    10. Rogelio C. Lim on

      Maraming ginulo si Noynoy nang maging presidente. Dito sa sariling bansa natin at sa ibang bansa lalo na sa magandang relasyon natin sa China.