Finally, a face-saving opportunity to end the tense stand-off at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Last Friday, citing bad weather conditions, President Benigno S. Aquino III ordered the two remaining Filipino ships in the area, a Philippine Coast Guard patrol craft and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources research vessel, to pull out of the disputed waters. The President’s order followed an earlier pull-out by both China and the Philippines from the shoal’s inner lagoon, which was seen by observers as an attempt by both sides to de-escalate tensions.
President Aquino’s deputy spokesperson says the withdrawal is a unilateral decision meant to ensure the safety of the Filipino crew, and that China has nothing to do with it. But Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters last week that the Chinese had also agreed to withdraw their ships from the disputed waters, hinting that a deal of sorts had actually been reached.
So far, however, there’s no sign that the Chinese would honor this supposed agreement. While the Chinese Embassy in Manila has lauded the Philippines’ withdrawal, it was mum on the question of whether Beijing would follow Manila’s lead. This is despite the fact that Manila’s pull-out has given the Chinese government the opportunity to also withdraw around thirty of its maritime surveillance ships from the disputed waters without losing face to its nationalistic domestic constituents.
Yesterday, Malacanang reiterated that it is waiting for China “to honor its commitment” to pull its flotilla out of the shoal. In other words, Manila was sending Beijing a message: We’ve done our part, now do yours.
Obviously, ending the Scarborough stand-off is a necessary tactical initiative for the Philippines, which has very limited military options. But this is so with Beijing too, for different reasons.
China’s firmness on the Scarborough Shoal stand-off has alienated several Asian capitals, thereby squandering the gains of almost a decade of delicate “peaceful rise” diplomacy. To say that China’s soft power has been weakened by the stand-off is an understatement; Asian countries are now beginning to gravitate further towards the United States, which has publicly stated that it intends to remain as a Pacific power. Japan, whose ruling party used to have pro-Beijing leanings, for instance, has chosen to re-affirm its alliance with Washington, while Vietnam is practically laying the welcome mat for America’s Seventh Fleet in Cam Ranh Bay.
Clearly, to repair the damages to China’s image in the region, it’s necessary for Beijing to reciprocate Manila’s goodwill.
Needless to say, the restoration of status quo ante—that is, making the Scarborough Shoal free of government ships from both sides pending the completion of a code of conduct on the South China Sea disputes—should be a win-win solution not only for both the Philippines and China but also for the region as a whole. But would Beijing see it this way, or would it find Manila’s withdrawal an opportunity to cement its newfound control over the disputed shoal?
How China would respond to the Philippine withdrawal could be indicative of who’s gaining the upper hand in the on-going national debate within the Middle Kingdom on how China should behave as an emerging power. Surely, the rest of Asia is watching closely.