TWO recent positive developments augur well for the Philippine strategy of seeking international arbitration in our long-simmering dispute with China over certain parts of the West Philippine (South China) Sea.
But no matter how elating they are, our government should stop short of feeling any sense of triumphalism, lest it distort national perspectives and lead to carelessness.
Tribunal’s authority and jurisdiction
Briefly, these two developments are, first and foremost, the ruling issued last Thursday, October 29, at the Hague in the Netherlands by the International Arbitration tribunal. The ruling said that it can take on the case between China and the Philippines over disputed territory in the South China Sea, in the process overruling objections from Beijing that the arbitration body has no authority to hear the case. The ruling says it has the authority and the jurisdiction.
At this stage, no words could be more reassuring for our contention and petition that China’s massive territorial claims in the disputed waters do not conform with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and should be declared invalid. It reflects favorably on our other assertion that some Chinese-occupied reefs and shoals do not generate, or create a claim to, territorial waters.
The tribunal said it has authority to look into seven issues raised by the Philippines against China but added that its jurisdiction over seven others “will need to be considered in conjunction with the merits.” It said it has set hearings and expects to hand down a decision on the case next year.
A harder US line on Chinese claims
The second positive development is the news coming from Washington, DC, that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s refusal to back down over his country’s island-building campaign in disputed waters has hardened US President Barack Obama’s attitude toward Beijing.
During President Xi’s recent visit to the US, at an informal dinner on Sept. 24, President Obama raised China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea as a key topic for discussion.
During the dinner, Obama talked about the issue at length and urged Xi to halt construction of military installations. Xi stonewalled him.
Right after the meeting, an incensed Obama ordered a close aide to contact Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command. Then and there, the American president authorized the US Navy to move ahead with an operation in the South China Sea.
This informal dinner meeting between US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and their close advisers on Sept. 24 is now viewed as a catalyst for a harder White House line on Beijing’s territorial claims.
The plan is to send American warships to within 12 nautical miles, or about 22 km, of China’s artificial islands. Under international law, a country’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from its shore. The maneuver would tell Beijing and its neighbors that the US does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over the area.
Top US military officials had the plan ready as early as June. The brass wanted to take action immediately, but Obama withheld his authorization, because he hoped face-to-face talks with Xi would make the mission unnecessary.
Obama, however, realized that a conciliatory attitude was not going to get Beijing to cooperate, according to Edward Luttwak, a well-known expert on US military strategy. The mission would mark a major turning point for American policy toward China.
Luttwak believes that Beijing has dug itself into a hole on the issue.
Many diplomatic sources aver that Japan and some Southeast Asian countries had been urging Washington to dispatch the naval vessels. In their view, regional stability hinges on challenging China’s attempt to change the status quo by force.
Obama’s decision has been welcomed in Tokyo, Manila and other Asian capitals. Nevertheless, the mission carries risks: should the Chinese military try to stop the American ships, it could trigger the outbreak of conflict, which neither side wants.
Significantly, Obama’s tougher stance vis-à-vis China comes at a time when his policy of dialogue with even staunch adversaries has led to dividends: like the nuclear deal with Iran and the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba.
Obama is likely to use this approach also in dealing with Beijing. With only a year left in office, Obama is steering the White House toward a two-pronged strategy: keeping pressure on China over its territorial grabs in the South China Sea, while working cooperatively with Beijing on combating global warming and rebuilding Afghanistan.
The Philippine government does well to monitor closely this emerging US policy, while tending closely to its arbitration case in the Hague.
It’s no small achievement of Philippine statecraft that we are planted firmly in the conversation on the South China Sea. That we’re not mere spectators.
We can only wish that the Aquino regime had handled relations with China more adroitly.