The grounding of the American minesweeper USS Guardian in the world-renowned Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea is stoking emotions in the Philippines. It has put both the American and the Philippine governments on the spot, and has given anti-American activists plenty of ammunition.
The incident is just the latest in what the New York Times has described as a “string of embarrassments” for the American military in the Philippines. A couple of weeks ago, both Manila and Washington drew flak for the discovery of a US drone off Masbate. In the Filipino activist’s mind, that incident evoked images of America’s drone warfare in Pakistan, despite assurances from both governments that the drone had in fact been unarmed. Much earlier, a Malaysia-based American government contractor was alleged to have dumped thousands of liters of untreated domestic waste from a US Navy ship near Subic Bay, alarming environmentalists.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario made news last week for expressing support for the “rearming” of Japan, saying Manila is “looking for balancing factors in the region,” and that Tokyo “could be a significant balancing factor,” presumably against an increasingly-assertive China.
It seems to me that the subliminal message of the way the international press has reported the Secretary’s comments is that, because of China’s intransigence, Japan’s standing among Asian countries is changing. Here are my two cents:
In Manila, President Benigno S. Aquino III’s appointment of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV as his back-channel negotiator with Beijing during the Scarborough stand-off earlier this year has back-fired spectacularly, and the administration is now drawing flak. A doyen of Philippine journalism, who should probably retire, has called the President’s back-channeling a reckless adventure, while one deranged blogger is saying that the Philippines has ceased to be a sovereign state due to the episode.
This blog disagrees with these rabid critics, of course. There is nothing wrong with back-channeling when dealing with a foreign power on something as serious as the Scarborough stand-off. In fact, it’s a fairly common practice of statecraft: It allows nations, in times of crisis, to test waters, send feelers, and thereby explore every possible way to resolve conflicts, even as they parrot an official line. There was, however, something seriously wrong about choosing Senator Trillanes to be the President’s back-door point man.
In the aftermath of that spectacular failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a joint communiqué on its ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Foreign Minister had the gall to accuse the Philippines and Vietnam of “taking the communiqué as a hostage and insisting on turning the 10-nation group to a tribunal.” Pretty strong words. But as one newspaper said in its editorial, this was a “dishonest account.” In other words, a lie.
Taking the ASEAN communiqué hostage of their bilateral issues with China must mean that Manila and Hanoi had insisted on including words representing a consensus of sorts that was not in fact reached in the meetings. But this was not the case. Manila merely insisted that the discussions on the Scarborough Shoal stand-off and the EEZ dispute between Vietnam and China be reflected for the simple reason that they were in fact discussed. No more, no less. Isn’t the joint communiqué supposed to document what transpired in the meetings?
That’s how the Philippine Daily Inquirer describes the Philippines’ move to withdraw its ships, purportedly due to a typhoon, from the disputed Scarborough Shoal last week. It’s now apparent that the Chinese side has no intention of reciprocating Manila’s move, and that the status quo ante will not be restored anytime soon.
Instead, the Chinese have used the typhoon to strengthen their already overwhelming presence in the Shoal. Citing the need to assist the Chinese fishing boats in the area amid bad weather, Beijing deployed another vessel, increasing the number of its ships in the Shoal and leaving Philippine officials flabbergasted. Most observers agree that Manila may have overestimated Beijing’s desire to de-escalate.
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 of ships 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.
NOTE: This is a guest post. One of this blog’s readers, who requested to remain anonymous, pitched this article. It may or may not reflect my own views.
When a state projects its overwhelming military might against another state in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, it’s called gunboat diplomacy. But when a state uses not the traditional military warships and jets but a supposedly harmless flotilla of civilian fishing crafts, it’s a fishing boat aggression.
In the Scarborough Shoal, it was the encroachment of Chinese fishing boats into the Philippine Excusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which prompted a reaction from Manila, that led to the current tensions between the Philippines and China. The role of these private Chinese fishing boats in the escalation of tension in disputed areas is indicative of the new pattern being employed by China in asserting its claims.
Analysts and students of China’s domestic politics are now becoming unanimous in observing that the heated rhetoric coming from Beijing regarding its stand-off with Manila over the Scarborough Shoal is a ploy to divert the country’s attention away from the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng scandals that have rocked the Communist Party (CCP). Apparently, the party brass deem that this diversion is vital to stabilize the political situation in the midst of the on-going delicate baton-passing between President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping.
The CCP has long used nationalism, along with economic gains, as a pillar to support its legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people, as well as to distract them from its domestic political abuses. This explains why Beijing is encouraging its state-run news agencies to beat the nationalist drums at the Philippines’ expense, with several newspapers seriously advocating war with Manila. According to our friends in Beijing, the ploy has succeeded; the Scarborough stand-off is now the talk of the town, and the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng cases are now old news.
Some lawmakers in Manila are upset with American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the United States does not take sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. They should know, however, that a declaration of American neutrality in terms of the competing claims in the area is in fact more beneficial to the Philippines.
The American position on the Scarborough crisis, as articulated by Secretary Clinton in yesterday’s Philippine-American ministerial dialogue in Washinton, is actually more nuanced than the supposed neutrality that these lawmakers—and the Daily Tribune— are trying to paint. While Washington does not take sides on sovereignty issues; it has declared that it is against the threat or the use of force, and is in favor of a multilateral approach, in solving the Scarborough crisis. It has also reiterated that it will honor its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and that it will commit itself to building a “minimum credible defense posture” for the Philippines.
When China prevented the Philippines from apprehending illegal Chinese poachers caught pilfering endangered marine life in the Scarborough Shoal— in clear violation of Philippine and international laws— it probably thought that the militarily-weak Philippines would meekly submit and call it a day. But as an American expert on Asian affairs said, Beijing has clearly underestimated Manila’s resolve.
For sixteen days now, Philippine and Chinese vessels are in a stand-off in the Scarborough, and neither side is showing signs of blinking. The military power asymmetry between the two sides is beyond obvious. China has an overwhelming advantage. The Philippines, however, knows how to play its cards.
“Our message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours,” says President Benigno S. Aquino in his annual State of the Nation Address in Congress last Monday. “Setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue.”
Recto Bank is the Filipino term for Reeds Bank, which is located between the Spratlys and Palawan, and within the country’s 300 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Recto Avenue, on the other hand, is a street in Manila that leads to the presidential palace
This has to be the boldest stance ever taken by a Philippine president on the disputes in the West Philippine Sea (Manila’s term for the South China Sea). Marcos, although he strengthened the Philippine claim on the Spratlys by putting up an airstrip and some garrisons on several islets there, never lifted a finger when the Vietnamese grabbed one of the Philippine-held island there in the 1970s. Ramos rallied the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) against Chinese military build-up on Mischief Reef, but in the end, despite singing an Elvis Presley duet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, he couldn’t do anything about China’s island-grab. Arroyo, of course, cozied up to China by coming up with a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU)— Manila’s bungle, according to Barry Wain—apparently in exchange for Chinese loans that, unlike Japanese and European loans, had little or no safety nets against graft and corruption.
Japan has a similar question: In case of an attack on Tokyo, would the Americans risk Los Angeles to retaliate? If Japan feels insecure and starts transforming itself from a pacifist to a “normal” country, the suspicious Koreans and Chinese would respond in a manner that could threaten regional stability. This is why the Americans would always go out of their way to reassure the Japanese in the strongest possible terms. When tensions broke out between Beijing and Tokyo last year over a row in the disputed Senkaku Island, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself categorically pointed out that the disputed island fall under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Tokyo and Washington.
Just as China was protesting the draping of the Philippine flag on the coffin of Rolando Mendoza, the cop-turned-terrorist who murdered eight Hong Kong nationals in Manila last Monday, its submarines were returning home from a successful mission to plant a Chinese flag beneath the South China Sea. It was the latest act of renewed Chinese assertiveness in the disputed region and a demonstration of China’s underwater capabilities.
Of course, the flag-planting doesn’t give the Chinese what they don’t already have with regards to their claims to the South China Sea. It’s not the first time in recent years that China demonstrated unilateral assertiveness either. But the stunt was significant because it was a rebuke to the United States, which has recently weighed in on the dispute.
Much has been said about the treasonous deal Gloria Arroyo forged with Beiijing and Hanoi. But only a few seems to be looking for the best way out of this imbroglio for the Philippines.
The agreement breached the Constitution, offered Philippine terittories for exploration by foreigners and destroyed the political solidarity of the ASEAN, which was the key to the region’s successes against Chinese provocations during the last decade. But now that these damages have been exposed, what steps should Manila take to clean the mess?