China’s invasion tag and the need for back-up on the Spratlys

There was an interesting foreign affairs development that largely escaped the scrutiny of mainstream media analysts in Manila last week. The People’s Republic of China has accused the Republic of the Philippines of “invading” its “territories.”

“Since 1970’s, the Republic of the Philippines started to invade and occupy some islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands and made relevant territorial claims, to which China objects strongly,” read Beijing’s April 14 note verbale to the United Nations, a response to the belated protest filed by the Philippines against China’s “nine-dash” claims in the South China Sea.

A report by Vera Files noted that “of all four diplomatic protests lodged against China’s 9-dash line map, it was only the Philippine protest that China singled out,” and that this has been the first time China has accused the Philippines of invasion. Indeed, as far as the author knows, it has been the first time that China has accused any country of invasion in the context of East and South China Seas territorial disputes. Invasion, after all, can fairly be viewed as a very strong word in international relations.

And this came despite the generally friendly gestures President Benigno S. Aquino III has been making towards the Chinese. Last December, Manila concluded a $12 billion dollar arms deal with Beijing, the first time the US ally has ever done so. Likewise, the Philippines boycotted the Nobel Peace Prizein solidarity with China last year. Indeed, just weeks ago, the Chinese Embassy itself, in explaining the postponement of the inevitable execution of Filipino drug mules in China, another first, has even called the Philippines “a friend.”

So how could China’s view of the Philippines turn from being a friend into being an enemy (invader) in just weeks?

Well, for starters, Beijing is quite difficult to read. Its policy-making process is rather opaque. In democratic capitals, there are strong institutions and rules that make policy-making predictable. We know who calls the shot, so to speak. But in Beijing, institutions and rules are mostly either blurred or pliable, and policy is often shaped by the interaction among different political actors. On foreign policy-making, for example, the Foreign Ministry—the diplomats who call the Philippines a friend—doesn’t always reign supreme; there are other actors like the Communist Party brass and the hawkish generals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

In fact, many analysts have been saying that the PLA’s clout on general policy-making has grown considerably, indeed alarmingly, in recent years. Long-time China-watcher Gordon Chang, for instance, has noted that, while for the most part since the Tianamen Square massacre the PLA had generally abdicated much of its influence to the civilian leaders of the Party, the military has recently re-established itself as a major policy-making actor after President Hu Jintao courted its support during his 2004 internal power struggle with erstwhile leader Jiang Zemin.

Of course, whether or not the Chinese military is indeed becoming powerful—Chang calls it “the remilitarization of Beijing”— is a matter of speculation. But it is a fact that hawkish PLA generals have been increasingly seeing their views become China’s policy. How else can one explain the unusually harsh diplomatic harassment Japan suffered from China over an errant Chinese fisherman who infringed, possibly with official encouragement, on Japanese territorial waters?

Indeed, deviating from the spirit of the ASEAN-sponsored Declaration of Conduct, China has recently elevated the South China Sea and all its islands and reefs, which it claims wholly, to the level of “Core Interest.” In other words, to the Chinese, the Spratlys are as important as Tibet and Taiwan. Then there’s the harassment of a US naval surveillance ship, the USS Impeccable, repeatedly by five Chinese vessels near Hainan; China’s unilateral ban on fishing in the Gulf of Tonkin and its detention of Vietnamese fishing boats; and, lately, the harassment of a Philippine seismic research vessel by Chinese patrol boats off the Reed Bank. And all these come amid news of China’s acquisition of stealth fighters, plans for acquiring aircraft carriers, and, more significantly, development of non-traditional weapons system likeanti-satellite and anti-carrier missiles.

Clearly, China’s strategic charm offensive and “peaceful rise” overtures have given way to a more assertive, Monroe Doctrine-ish foreign policy.

So how should the Philippines respond to this change?

The bad news is that the Philippines is too weak to stand up to China just by itself. The only option is for the Philippines to continue striving to keep the Spratlys dispute a multilateral, instead of a bilateral, issue. The Philippines would be swallowed by China’s huge leverage if it were to deal with that country alone. Therefore, the Philippines should not deal with China alone; it should seek back-up. The schoolyard bully, after all, would think twice before hitting a weakling when that weakling is in the company of his friends. The more, the merrier, so to speak.

The good news is that Filipino foreign policy-makers understand this. “Asean should have one voice before we venture (into) talking to other claimants,”said President Aquino. This explains why, in the President’s recent state visits to Indonesia, a traditional Philippine ally, and Singapore, South China Sea was on the agenda.

As a result of the President’s diplomacy, non-claimant Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong “expressed hope that all outstanding disputes in that area will be adjudicated and resolved in accordance with international law.” Meanwhile, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose government had also filed a UN complaint against China’s nine-dash claims, came up with a reiteration of his country’s position during Aquino’s visit and even suggested that perhaps the issue could be brought up in the ASEAN summit that Jakarta will be hosting this year, prompting a stern reaction from Beijing. “China holds indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu in a press conference called in Beijing at about the same time Yudhoyono and Aquino were meeting.

But the better back-up, not just for the Philippines but also for the other ASEAN claimants (Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei), would be the United States. Obviously, the schoolyard bully would back off from hitting a weakling when that weakling is in the company not just of his friends but also of another bully.

And fortunately, after a long hiatus, Washington is again back in the region. In last year’s ASEAN summit in Hanoi, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton infuriated the Chinese by saying that it’s in her country’s national interest that South China Sea be open for all, and by offering to mediate the resolution of the disputes through “collaborative diplomatic process” and sans coercion. Hawaii-based academic and Spratlys expert Mark J. Valenciacalled this a “verbal ambush” by the United States that “embarrassed China in front of an Asian audience.” And that Asian audience, especially Vietnam, apparently relished it.

As for the Philippines, it is in a very good position to exploit renewed American interest in the region, being one of Washington’s five Asia-Pacific treaty allies and all. Last month, for instance, Clinton personally made a phone call to Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario to express her concern regarding the Reed Bank incident and to reiterate her government’s offer to mediate the dispute’s resolution. It can be fairly assumed that the message was also intended for Beijing, at least just as much as it was intended for Manila.

In an op-ed on the Washington Times, Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center in the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, called on Washington to “build-up” the Philippines, which he has identified as America’s weakest Pacific ally. “We should introduce some strategic ambiguity into how the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty applies. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. standing still were the Chinese to move on Philippines-occupied and -administered islands in the South China Sea. But even beyond that, the administration should make it clear that it regards Chinese harassment of Philippine vessels elsewhere within the disputed territory as hostile,” he wrote.

It would indeed be beneficial for the Philippines if Washington does as Lohman prescribes. An assurance of American military back-up in the Spratlys, after all, could probably be the only reliable insurance against serious Chinese harassments, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) being incredibly weak as it is. Given the renewed American concerns over Beijing’s actions—indeed, even the United States is possibly still smarting from the Impeccable incident—in the region, perhaps this is the best time for the Philippines to lobby for America’s firm pledge of military support, along the lines of the Mutual Defense Treaty, should worse comes to worst in the Kalayaan Islands Group.

But of course, this is not to say that the Philippines should pursue a totally subservient pro-US foreign policy to get this. Tactically, getting US back-up against China’s assertive threats is essential. But for the long-term, the Philippines should strive to achieve at least a minimum level of self-reliance in terms of national defense, and to strategically balance its relations with Beijing and Washington, so that the country would always have enough space to calibrate, and re-calibrate, its positions towards, and away from, whichever power center it would best benefit from.

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