LET us do this chronologically.
Days before the release on July 12 of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, at The Hague, on the Philippine maritime dispute with China, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr. announced he was willing to sit down with Beijing for bilateral talks on the possible joint exploration of mineral and marine resources of the disputed maritime areas in the South China (West Philippine) Sea.
This was a pointed departure from the previous position of the Aquino government, which had insisted on a purely multilateral approach to the dispute, invoking international law under UNCLOS—the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. President Rodrigo DU30 did not correct or rebuke Yasay for his statement, so one assumed it had his full authority.
This apparently alarmed the US government, which had openly supported Aquino’s position and chided Beijing for its refusal to agree to arbitration and to recognize the jurisdiction of the arbitral body. On the eve of the release of the ruling, which everyone expected to be favorable to the Philippines, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter telephoned Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to talk about the impending verdict and its implications to the security of the region.
Kristie Kenney’s role
Hours before our “victory,” US State Department Counselor Kristie Kenney, a former ambassador to the Philippines, met with Yasay at the Department of Foreign Affairs “to call on the parties to respect the ruling.” This was completely ironic because the Philippine government was the only party to the arbitration, and could not have been expected to “disrespect” a ruling in its favor. If at all, the Philippines should be the one asking China to respect the ruling and the US to help persuade Beijing.
In reality, Kenney’s call was a rebuke to the newly initiated foreign secretary for his gratuitous statement on bilateral negotiations, which caught Washington totally by surprise. Nothing was reported from the Kenney-Yasay conversation, but when the ruling from The Hague came and profuse and euphoric reactions greeted it from the US, Japan, Australia and the European allies as well as from all sorts of netizens, Yasay had to welcome it in measured tones, calling for “sobriety” at the same time.
Albert del Rosario recycled
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who had been quoted as saying the Philippines would be a frontline state in containing China’s rise, and had engaged Beijing in steaming rhetoric on the South China Sea issue when he was still in office, was recycled out of wherever he was enjoying his retirement for publicity purposes, to speak actively about the ruling and receive the applause of the public who had yet to see our victory at the The Hague was completely psychic.
Yasay’s next opportunity to be heard came at the 11th Asia-Europe Summit Meeting, in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, on July 15 – 16, where on behalf of DU30, who was unable to attend, he called upon China to bind itself to the process it had rejected from the very start. He was somehow overshadowed in the press by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who pressed the point against China far more strongly than he did, prompting the Chinese government to point out that Japan was not a party to the issue at hand.
ASEM unmoved, FVR mooted
In its post-conference statement, ASEM refused to be drawn into the Philippines-China controversy, limiting itself to a general statement to the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes. Apparently, Yasay had some conversation with the Chinese delegation at the margins of the conference, but nothing came out of it in the press. Yasay’s performance provoked rumors of his early departure, prompting the President to issue a statement dismissing such possibility.
At the same time DU3O announced he was going to name former President Fidel V. Ramos as his special envoy to start talks with the Xi Jinping government. This was promptly welcomed by Beijing, and Ramos himself indicated genuine interest in it. But the latest word from Yasay is that there won’t be any talks with China, unless the latter agrees to discuss the PCA ruling, which it does not recognize.
This tends to show that some powerful actor has succeeded in torpedoing the rapprochement project, and that we should expect belligerent rhetoric and tension, which we were trying to arrest, to ratchet up. This means that the new DFA management never understood why bilateral talks were needed, in the face of a ruling that tends to create a worse crisis than the one it was seeking to ease.
To this observer the merit of bilateral talks was never in doubt. But the talks have to be without any preconditions. We just won the arbitral ruling, true; but no power on earth could compel China to recognize it. So why would China want to have talks with us that begin with a discussion of what it does not want to recognize? And what benefit do we hope to gain from it?
On the other hand, if we sit down to discuss ways and means of working together for peace and economic development without touching a gaping wound that’s still so fresh, China would most probably appreciate our generosity and try to match it to the fullest. This is the Asian way, unfamiliar to the West. Eventually, after we have been bonded by the strongest economic, social, cultural and human ties, we could perhaps begin to talk of the most difficult territorial problems between us.
A Korean tale
The story of a young Korean I had met on one of my earlier trips to Seoul seems most apt. He said he had a Japanese classmate with whom he fought on the first day they met—over the issue of Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The Japanese militarists had killed his parents, and he wanted to take it out on the young Japanese. He broke his nose, although he himself did not go unscathed. Despite this incident, he took pains to befriend his perceived nemesis.
They became such good friends that whenever any of his other friends would begin to talk of what the Japanese did to Korea in the past, he would immediately change the subject, and his Japanese friend would be profuse in his thanks. One day his friend asked about his dead parents, and if he could visit their graves to pay his respects. From then on, it became so easy for them to discuss their dark past.
GMA tried joint exploration
DU30 and Yasay were not the first ones to mention the possibility of joint exploration of marine and mineral resources in the South China (West Philippine) Sea. In 2004, during the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration, the Philippines and China already agreed to conduct joint exploration for oil and gas in the disputed waters. In March 2005, Vietnam became the third party to the Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU).
This, however, fell apart because of maritime incidents between China and Vietnam, and certain controversies involving China’s big business contracts in the Philippines. There was also a move to question the constitutionality of the JMSU before the Supreme Court. Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who has taken the lead in discussing the Philippine claim as against China’s so-called “nine-dash line” in various forums, maintains that any joint exploration with China as an equal partner would violate the Constitution, which permits foreigners not more than 40 percent equity in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources.
Marine Peace Park
But Carpio is willing to adopt the idea of Dr. John McManus, professor of Marine Biology and Fisheries at the University of Miami, that the disputed areas be converted into a Marine Peace Park for the benefit of all. This is not much different from a previous proposal in this column that the area be declared a common heritage of mankind, free from any kind of military weapons, particularly nuclear, or the political control of any nation, but for the benefit of all. This sounds like an idea whose time has come, although rather utopian; but I fear it would be immediately shot down by the military powers who see the South China Sea not only as the great waterway through which passes $5 trillion of the world’s annual trade but also as an irreplaceable playground for the world’s most powerful aircraft carriers, warships and submarines.
Without any means to compel China to comply with a ruling that invalidates its so-called “nine-dash line,” there is obvious need for the Philippines and China to talk and avoid inflammatory rhetoric and counterproductive political or military initiatives. As I have said a few times before, we have no need of war with China, nor can we afford it. Given our limited resources, how do we feed 1.3 billion Chinese, if they survive such a war, and should we win it?
US and China must talk
But since the real conflict is the geopolitical rivalry between the world’s lone superpower and Asia’s rising regional power, there is even more urgent need for them to sit down and discuss the terms upon which we are to build a new world order. The basic conflict is civilizational, and must be resolved as such.
As the British author and journalist Simon Winchester puts it in his book Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, the Eastern civilization on the West side of the Pacific and the Western civilization on the East side of the Pacific have finally met to turn the Pacific into the inland sea of tomorrow, where the Mediterranean was the inland sea of the ancient world, and the Atlantic the inland sea of today. America has dominated the Pacific for the past 60 years, but its declining economic and political power has rendered it insecure about China’s phenomenal economic, political and military rise.
Search for equivalence, avoiding the ‘Thucydides Trap’
America needs to see, Winchester writes, that China is not interested in replacing or challenging the US as a world power. It does not intend to colonize, enslave or dominate any country or people like the Western powers, but simply wants to “enjoy equivalence.” This mistaken fear of China, left unchecked, could lead to what has been called the “Thucydides Trap,” in which a rising power causes fear in an established power which inevitably escalates toward war. We learn this from the History of the Peloponnesian War, which happened when after Athens and Sparta defeated Persia, Sparta’s growing fear of Athens led the two former allies to destroy each other.
In a major 2015 article in The Atlantic, Prof. Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government asked whether the US and China are headed for war because of the Thucydides Trap. A few years before that, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a speech before the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 3, 2012, warned the US against falling into such a trap.
Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has said, “We all need to work together to avoid the ‘Thucydides Trap’—destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers… Our aim is to foster a new model of major country relations.”
Indeed this can be avoided, not by demonizing the rising power or trying to prevent its rise, but by peaceful and constructive engagement, which begins to happen when the contending parties sit down without any preconditions to talk.