Back To Top

Sovereignty saber rattles China’s neighbors

China’s surprisingly aggressive assertion of “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea has startled governments around the region, and puts the emerging superpower on a collision course with its partners in the region as well as the interests of the other, long-established superpower, the United States.

Misconceptions about the issue clutter the public discourse in the Philippines, however, and threaten to harden into conclusions. We owe it to ourselves ― and senators and congressmen owe it to their constituents ― to clarify the discussion, rather than confuse it.

In the first place, the increased chances of a confrontation with China over the Kalayaan Islands, that chain of islets to the west of Palawan that the Philippines claims, was not the saber-rattling idea of a president with declining satisfaction ratings. Media personalities identified with the Arroyo administration have advanced the suggestion that the entire issue is a wag-the-dog scenario. That kind of thinking reveals politics at its most parochial. If anything, Malacanang has been playing catch-up. China has been increasingly assertive in defending its claim to the area since last year; earlier this year, for example, China cut off the cables of two Vietnamese exploration vessels, one a mere 120 nautical miles off Vietnam’s coast.

Secondly, and contrary to the worldview of some politicians, the dispute does not involve the Philippines alone. Vietnam, in fact, has borne the brunt of renewed Chinese assertiveness, which helps explain why it conducted live-fire exercises off its coast last week. Japan has complained to China about Chinese naval war drills conducted near Okinawa and other islands the Japanese claim. Even Singapore, the lone regional player which is not a claimant, broke its diplomatic silence last week. As it prepared to receive China’s biggest “civilian maritime patrol ship,” it asked Beijing to clarify its territorial claims.

“We have repeatedly said that we think it is in China’s own interests to clarify its claims in the South China Sea with more precision as the current ambiguity as to their extent has caused serious concerns in the international maritime community,” the Singapore foreign ministry said.

Third, and most crucial, the flexing of Chinese muscle is not about the Spratlys. It is not about the Paracel Islands, or any other territory included in the so-called nine-dotted line. It is, in fact, about the entire South China Sea which China calls, simply, the South Sea. Last July, in response to the forceful declaration by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that it was in the American national interest that “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea be maintained, the People’s Liberation Army issued an equally categorical statement. “China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea, and China has sufficient historical and legal backing” to support its claim, the military spokesman said. He added a proviso: “We will, in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of the passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries.” The seemingly unilateral language of the American declaration should not confuse us; it is in the entire region’s best interest if freedom of navigation in the South China Sea remains a right, not a favor granted by Beijing.

Fourth, and most particular to our policymakers, the country may be weak economically and puny militarily, but in the looming confrontation with China it does have two advantages: It has international law on its side; and it can expect the support of the international community.

China’s recent harassing of a Philippine exploration vessel happened off Recto Bank, only 80 nautical miles from Palawan but almost 500 from mainland China. Under either the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea or the 2002 Code of Conduct, Beijing will have a hard time explaining this aggressive behavior.

Columnist Raul Pangalangan asked the right geopolitical question: What has happened to China’s policy of “peaceful rise”? Its increasingly bellicose posture cannot be disguised by the charm offensive of seasoned diplomats; it is plain for all to see. But China’s undisputed rise as a global economic power means it cannot disregard international treaties indefinitely. That means the Philippines, while standing up as best it can to the bully in the regional schoolyard, must make its case on law and diplomacy.

(Editorial, Philippine Daily Inquirer)

(Asia News Network)