Selfie over the South China Sea

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Lauro L. BajaThe Oxford University Press, the publisher of the Oxford dictionaries, has announced that “selfie” has been declared word of the year for 2013. The word, “smartphone” self-portrait posted online” saw a huge jump in usage in the past year to describe inordinate if not obsessive attention to oneself and his advocacies. Selfie could well apply to actions and statements of claimants to the land and sea area at the South China Sea.

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For months, China has been engaged in selfies in the SCS, the most recent examples being the “Air Defense Identification Zone” in the East Sea and the “training mission” of their aircraft carrier Liaoning in the SCS, The twin moves follow previous Chinese “effectiveness” in the area such as the virtual occupation of Panatag Shoal, dispatch of Chinese fishing fleets accompanied by naval units, and creation of Chinese administrative units to “supervise” their territories. The biggest selfie is their nine-dash line. All these selfies do not build trust, escalate tensions, and curtail preventive diplomacy.

The Philippines has its own selfies. It hauled China to the Unclos Arbitral Tribunal. It has welcomed “increase national presence” of US troops to the Philippines and agreed to grant access to Philippine bases.

In doing its selfies on the WPS, the Philippines should engage in some sort of stock taking on recent developments—what we did which we should not have done and what we did not do and should have done. The Philippines in the Arbitral Panel is a positive step for the country. Our immediate concern in the Panel would be, (a) to convince the Panel that our submission is sufficient for them to assume jurisdiction.

(b) That our case does not fall within the reservations made by China to the disputes settlement mechanism and (c) that our memorials to be submitted by March next year should contain hard, specific data well grounded in fact and in law which will convince the Panel to award what we are praying for. Our memorials should contain a prayer for the Panel to grant the Philippines, “Provisional measures” or “preventive remedies” against on going tactics of China in the West Philippine Sea. The process in Panel will be protracted and China is likely to continue with their activities in the area.

Our petition should include measures against Chinese tactics of cabbage (surrounding a contested area step by step with naval presence and thus wrapped it like a cabbage).

A General of the People Liberation Army, which calls the shots in the SCS openly advocates this strategy. Another tactics called “Salami slicing” should also be prevented. This strategy involves a series of unfriendly acts, which can result in strategic change short of so called “small wars”. We should develop a framework strategy in case (a) we win in the Panel “how do we harness this victory to protect and promote our national interest” (b) in case we lose, what other options do we have.

Serendipity is not a policy option.

The Philippines together with Asean and other countries put great importance on a code of conduct in the South China Sea. China’s agreement to hold consultations on the subject is again a positive step. However, China’s position remains that any code could come only when the time is ripe. They still abhor the idea of “code.”

There are lessons to be learned from the first attempt to develop a code of conduct.

First, the Philippines should lead and avoid being only a fellow traveler in the negotiations. Second, the Philippines must have a draft, just like we had in 2002. The Philippines draft became an Asean draft, which we presented in a China-Asean meeting; China rejected the Draft but it opened the door for China to present their own views and engaged us in discussions. Third trust and confidence must accompany talks, which talks should go beyond regular Asean-China meetings. The SOM-senior officials- must develop a process of consultations to go forward.

US pivot to Asia
The Philippines considers and welcomes the US “pivot” to Asia as an aid of its position on the West Philippine Sea. The volume and tone of the debate on the issue should be lowered and efforts should the directed to how best to maximize the rotational presence and access to Philippine bases which we are about to grant. Despite protestations to the contrary, China perceives the pivot as directed against them.

The outcome in the Panel, in the talks on the code of conduct and the negotiations in the pivot are defining moments for Philippine foreign and diplomacy in the South China Sea.

There are several realities, which must be taken in to account as we negotiate these issues. First the security architecture of Asia will be determined to a significant extent by the strategic relations between the US and China. Second, territorial and maritime jurisdictions are generational issues, which will take time to resolve if ever at all. Trust must accompany relations between states and positions. Let us also keep in mind that China and the United States of yesterday are not the China and US of today.

We should take care that we do not raise unrealistic expectations of general support for principles of general international law, which are already enshrined in international instruments. They make us feel good but are not yet accomplishments of our objectives. Peaceful settlement of disputes, freedom of navigation etc. have been open quoted by both angels and demons alike.

The Philippine selfie in the SCS/WPS must be clear, creative, alert, agile.

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