It’s not the Chinese. That’s the near- unanimous answer of Filipinos, especially with China threatening sanctions after the Philippines was to have filed its pleading for the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) to rule on the validity of Beijing’s nine-dash claim over the South China Sea and its islands, shoals and resources.
The latest diplomatic test of wills comes on the heels of another confrontation at sea. Weeks ago, the Chinese coast guard turned away Philippine boats carrying supplies for a marine detachment aboard the beached warship Sierra Madre in disputed Ayungin or Second Thomas Shoal. That forced the Philippines to airdrop food and water before another supply sailing finally slipped through the Chinese blockade over the weekend.
But no, the Chinese are not the top intruders in Philippine territory. Though it took over Panatag shoal in 2012 and now threatens Ayungin, China has kept far, far away from the archipelago itself.
In fact, the high seas in which Chinese and Philippine vessels have faced off are international waters, though they are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as designated under the UN Conventiion on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
But another country has deliberately intruded into Philippine territorial waters, including the UNCLOS-recognized archipelagic sea, year after year. It even has the temerity to negotiate the privilege of doing so with even greater forces “rotating” through the country: the United States of America.
America the intruder
By its official admission, the American military has openly and deliberately violated Philippine internal waters, as designated by the UN Convention. Sailing between our islands nearly 20 times last year, US vessels pointedly challenged the UNCLOS-backed claim that waters within the archipelago are part of Philippine territory.
Adopted by most nations in 1982, UNCLOS provides that the archipelagic sea within our recognized territorial baselines is part of our republic’s internal waters. But this is disputed by the US, which has signed but not ratified the Convention.
As the US Defense Department told Congress in its Freedom of Navigation Report for Fiscal Year 2013, the American Navy entered those internal waters within our archipelago, showing Washington’s opposition to that claim. (One wonders how the US would have reacted if the Chinese Navy sailed into our archipelagic sea alongside its Seventh Fleet to join it in challenging our claim of internal waters under UNCLOS.)
The Pentagon report said that among a dozen countries subjected to maritime challenges of their UNCLOS-designated waters, the second-most sailings occurred in the Philippines, next only to intrusions in Iran. Ten other UNCLOS claimants challenged by the US last year were Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Oman, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
US might vs. Chinese money
America’s misgivings about UNCLOS may partly explain why it has done nothing to back up the Philippines in asserting our EEZ claims against Chinese encroachments. The fact is Washington does not officially subscribe to the Convention on which we are claiming exclusive economic rights in sea and seabed 200 nautical miles from shore.
Add to that the exclusion of South China Sea conflicts from the stated coverage of the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty, which is explicitly confined to Pacific conflicts (see March 21 column), and no one should be surprised if Washington never confronts Beijing in defense of the Philippines’ UNCLOS claims.
Of course, far more important than legalities is America’s own national and geopolitical interests. It will never undertake the mammoth cost of direct conflict with China to defend disputed islets, shoals and waters far away from the main Philippine islands.
Not only does it need China’s trade and investment, including the holding of over $1 trillion in US Treasury bills in Chinese hard currency reserves. Beijing’s cooperation is also vital in dealing with many international problems, from North Korea, Syria and Iran, to world trade talks and global warming.
Instead of directly confronting Beijing, Washington has exploited President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s combative bent to project China as bully and America as protector, in an effort to shore up waning US influence in Asia. Unable to match Beijing’s growing aid, trade and investment largesse, Washington must capitalize on its sole remaining strength in wooing Asia: armed might.
To do that, however, there is need to create security threats against which the US military can secure Asia. That’s where the South China Sea spats come in. Instead of continuing joint cooperation and confidence building under the Arroyo government, the Aquino administration has pursued the opposite tack of direct confrontation—giving the US the regional tensions needed to justify its increased military presence in Asia.
Asean’s odd man out
But the rest of the region isn’t buying the American ploy. Most of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are sticking to the decades-old Asean policy of non-alignment, enunciated right at the start in its vision of becoming a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZoPFaN).
The grouping also remembers well how Beijing has proven a staunch supporter over the past four decades following America’s pullout from Asia after the Vietnam war ended in 1975 and US military bases in the Philippines closed in 1991-92.
China backed Asean through Vietnam’s 1978-1989 occupation of Cambodia and the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis, and has showered it with economic favors over the past decade, with promises of even more aid and trade, including infrastructure funds and participation in Asean’s Regional Economic Cooperation Program trading bloc.
So Asean is far from siding with comebacking America against constant China, especially with recent Indonesian and Malaysian gripes over reported US snooping into their leaders’ phone calls. Even Vietnam is on good terms with the Chinese, while beefing up its defenses, including the order of supersonic antiship missiles from India.
Still, our neighbors are content to let the Philippines quarrel with China, give up our share of Chinese trade, aid and investment, and host American forces as a counterweight to the People’s Liberation Army.
So as Filipinos, especially those working in Hong Kong and China, brace for Beijing’s sanctions on the Aquino administration, we can only hope that our next leader would see the folly of picking a fight with the world’s coming superpower and seeking the help of the current one to defend Philippine maritime claims—which it openly flouts.