Our crusade to isolate China has backfired
The Philippines has lately been noisy about China’s reclamation of one of the islands in the Spratlys. In fact, we went as far as accusing China of aggression. It was a high-profile propaganda blitz to get the world’s public opinion in what Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario dubbed as China’s “bullying.”
The latest of our anti-Chinese bluster was to drag the issue of China’s expansionism to the Asean meeting. President Aquino, on April 27 in Kuala Lumpur, stressed the Cold War approach of bolstering regional security in the wake of China’s continued and massive reclamation. But he was promptly rebuffed by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak who said Asean would continue to engage China in a constructive way. He said that it is not to the “Asean interest to confront China, and any attempt to destabilize the region will not benefit China either.”
Surprisingly, it seems only the US is ardently supporting our position, and it is not even a member of the Asean nor is geographically situated to justify its claim that China’s activity is a threat to its national security. Rather, we appear to act as proxy that is shamelessly committed into integrating the US’ pivot-to-Asia policy as part of the Asean policy towards China. We appear to be so alone that we could not distinguish what constitutes a threat to our security and what is merely detrimental to our interest.
For our clarification, there are three groups of tiny islands in the China Sea. This clustered group of islands stretches from the north in the Sea of Japan to the south of China Sea. The disputed islands in the north are respectively called by the Japanese “Senkaku islands”, to China “Diaoyu” and Taiwan calling it “Tiaoyutai islands”. In the south, we have the Spratly and Paracel group of islands. The Paracel group of islands is located west of Vietnam and south of China’s Hainan Island. South of the Paracel group of islands, is the Spratly Islands which is most proximate to us. There are several countries claiming and in fact occupying the islands – the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei. Our legal edge to our claim is that they are well within the exclusive economic zone which is recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas.
Claimants to the Spratly Islands virtually face each other eyeball-to-eyeball. But unlike the Philippines, all have taken the position of live and let live by allowing each to reinforce their physical hold of the islands they occupy. No one has raised an alarm about the Chinese activities or reclamation because all have erected and constructed physical structures in those islands with the difference that China resorted to artificially expanding the land area it occupies. They have cleared the area to allow small aircraft to land, built a garrison for the stationing of their troops, installed radar and communications facilities and made improvements useful for their military and other purposes.
Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei may have their own reasons not to bring the issue before the Asean forum. They see it far more important to their interest in seeking to develop further their economic ties with China than in making an issue of China’s increased presence in the China Sea. To give preference to that issue could divide and even create tension among the Asean members, with the net effect of endorsing the US’ pivot-to-Asia policy which could make the US presence in the area the only viable force that could “stabilize” the region. In effect, to focus on the issue of isolating and containing China could only give justification to the jingoistic drumbeating of Secretary del Rosario.
Noteworthy is the fact that only the Philippines used the word “aggression” in referring to China’s reclamation. Some question our use of the term, for it has no reference to a disputed territory or to an area where the sovereignty of one is disputed. In fact, our position in seeking the ratification of the Asean code of conduct for navigation in the China Sea would have an unproductive consequence, for it seems China is being singled out. It will not only heighten tension against China but could create a deeply divided Asean that will give rise to justifying the US naval presence in the area.
Conversely, while we preoccupy ourselves in antagonizing China, it was reported that Malaysia has taken two of the islands previously occupied by us. The unusual thing is nothing was heard from the Department of Foreign Affairs to deny or confirm said occupation. If true, the action taken by Malaysia of evicting us is an act of war. It is, to some political analysts, more serious than the reclamation being undertaken by China for which they have every right to make improvements of their infrastructure in their occupied island.
In fact, the Philippines’ proposal that Asean ratify the so-called code of conduct for navigation in the China Sea has made us appear ludicrous. Such is the observation for while we seek to enforce the rules of navigation against China, we are silent on other states that have their naval presence in the area. On the contrary, our support for the unilateral decision to conduct a joint patrol by the US and Japanese navies in the China Sea appears to be at odds with the original position we have taken. Besides, both the US and Japan are geographically located outside of China Sea area, where threat to their territorial integrity and security would not apply. Likewise, the US and Japan have no claim in the Paracel or in the Spratly, except that their presence is justified by their self-serving claim of keeping that body of water free for navigation. But as some would say, China Sea has been open to navigation since time immemorial, and only after they decided to patrol the area did they start talking of keeping it open to navigation.
Moreover, our endorsement of Washington’s proposal for the US and Japanese navies to jointly patrol the China Sea could only complicate the already-increased tension. Instead of demilitarizing the area, the Philippines is encouraging the increased presence of other navies which is anachronistic to the proposal of establishing a code of conduct for navigation in the China Sea. We must bear in mind that nobody from among the Asean is prepared to accept the enhanced naval presence of Japan in the area. Even if some would interpret the joint naval patrol as an indirect admission that the US is reeling the cost of financial burden in stabilizing its empire, that could erase fast the remaining goodwill that the US has established in Southeast Asia. The equation in the balance of power is not alone measured by the support of countries in the area, but borne out of their historical experience with Japan, which to them is totally unacceptable.