"Word of advice to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on his aggression in Asia - from a Filipino nationalist columnist of the Malaya newspaper Diego Cagahastian" - HTL
November 8, 2015
US bolsters presence in South China Sea
By DIEGO C. CAGAHASTIAN
First it was the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen that sailed more than a week ago near the reefs and atolls that had been upgraded by China as artificial islands in the South China Sea, particularly the Subi Reef in the Spratlys island chain.
Now, it is the turn of the massive aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to sail in that sea, accompanied still by the USS Lassen.
These naval initiatives, the US said, are being done in furtherance of their self-imposed mission to ensure that freedom of navigation is maintained in the region.
As the Theodore Roosevelt sailed, US Department of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told a forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California that "the United States joins virtually everyone else in the region in being deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea."
Carter stressed that he was worried about the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states."
US officials have charged that China is dredging the area to turn reefs into larger land masses for runways and military facilities. For China, this is just a normal thing to do, since it believes that the area belongs to their territory, and they exercise sovereignty over it. However, freedom of navigation is not threatened, China stressed.
In fact, in his speech before the 36th Singapore Lecture of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore on Nov. 7, President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China promised to safeguard freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, amid the ongoing regional tension.
Xi said there has never been any problem with freedom of navigation and overflight, nor will there be in the future.
There is truth to what he said, that China needs unimpeded passage through the waters more than anyone else.
Xi said, "We have absolute confidence and capability in maintaining the peace and stability. This can be done through negotiations and the establishment of reasonable maritime rights."
China has protested as illegal the earlier presence of USS Lassen there, and had called it a "deliberate provocation." It has sent two warships to shadow the US vessel and issue warnings. Although no international law was violated because the Lassen can just claim "innocent passage," clearly the combative pronouncements from Washington by officials like Carter reveal that the passage was premeditated and planned, cleared even by the highest authorities in the US capital.
Xi Jingping is correct in pointing out that China is "committed to working with countries with direct stake in the issue to solve the dispute on the basis of respect of historical facts, according to international laws and through discussions and negotiations." This is the same legal line taken by the Philippines in pursuing its claim -- by going to the United Nations arbitration court, although this route was rendered ineffective with China's insistence that the issue is one of sovereignty, and not maritime matter.
It stands to reason, however, why Secretary Carter has been using the argument that countries in the region, especially the claimants like the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei are deeply concerned about the Chinese construction efforts.
What deep concern is Carter talking about? The defense chiefs of these countries, together will all defense chiefs of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have concluded a high-level meeting and even refused to issue a statement concerning the South China Sea dispute. So, where is the deep regional concern that would merit American naval presence there, that would justify as emergency the sailing of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Lassen in the troubled waters west of the Philippines?
Isn't Carter and his ilk in Washington stoking the fire to create a conflagration in the region?
The Philippines, the nearest claimant to the place, is not even talking tough as much as the Pentagon chief.
This American stance which is fleshed out by Carter has long been anticipated by many observers in the Philippines and in the region, since the US indicated unequivocally that it will defend the international freedom of navigation in these waters, challenging the Chinese argument that the reefs and atolls are part of Chinese territory.
Recall what Carter said in a defense and security forum last Oct. 13. He said, "Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception."
He added that they will do it "at a time and places of our choosing."
To these strong words, Chinese diplomat Zhu Haiquan in Washington could only meekly assure that China will respect the, freedom of navigation, and that this freedom, along with overflight, should not be used as an excuse to flex muscle and undermine other countries' sovereignty.
As this exchange of contrasting arguments happen, the Philippines remains an observer with little voice, and possible venue of conflict between the two superpowers.
Especially so because the US State Department defines any US action in support of freedom of navigation as something sanctioned by international law, and does not need consultations with other countries or allies before implementation.
The Philippines admittedly has a weak military force compared to China, with logistics and resources of the economy not even comparable to this giant neighbor.
This forces Manila to take only the next best thing, which is to go to the United Nations arbitration court to press its claim over the Spratly archipelago of reefs, atolls and islets, and hope that China would toe the line if a favorable ruling is given.
The problem is China does not recognize that the UN panel has jurisdiction over the matter, it being a sovereignty issue and not one involving maritime or navigation.
The government of President Aquino should not just stand by the wayside and wait for the consummation of the disaster-waiting-to-happen. It should at least tell the US officially not to fan the embers of regional trouble by turning the issue from diplomacy to military.
Filipino fishermen in coastal communities of Zambales and Palawan have suffered enough from Chinese bullying, as the diplomats in Manila try to contain the problem by working through UN channels.
A wrong move by the US would be considered meddling, giving China the alibi to react, and devour us all in a conflagration nobody in the Philippines wanted.