Tubbataha and the Philippine-American alliance

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.

While a full accounting of all facts surrounding the circumstances of the Guardian‘s grounding has yet to be made, the initial reports have been disturbing. Under Philippine laws, the waters around the Tubbataha are off-limits to navigation, except for purposes of scientific research or tourism. The Tubbataha Marine Park’s management claims that it has warned the Guardian against sailing through the protected waters, but the minesweeper ignored these warnings, telling the Park’s authorities to take their complaints to the American Embassy instead. When the Park’s Marine Rangers tried to board the ship as per protocol, the Guardian shifted into battle mode, intimidating the Rangers away. An apologetic spokesman for the US Navy said this was merely a result of miscommunication.

These reports have stoked anger among Filipino activists, along with demands from leftist politicians to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States. Put in context, this emotional backlash is understandable. Firstly, the Tubbataha Reefs are the crown jewel of Philippine marine treasures. Protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site, the Reefs are a national symbol akin to the Great Barrier Reefs in Australia, Mount Fuji in Japan, or the Grand Canyon in the United States. Secondly, the American military’s environmental record in the Philippines has not been stellar. Calls for a clean-up of the toxic waste that American military personnel left behind in former US installations in Clark and Subic, for instance, were never heeded by Washington, and, as far as I know, the victims of those wastes have yet to be properly compensated.

The Filipino psyche seems to have contradictory attitudes towards the sensitive issue of American military presence in the Philippines. On one hand, Filipinos are arguably very pro-American in their political and cultural orientation, and, much to the disappointment of nationalists, see the United States as the only indispensable guarantor of Philippine sovereignty. This explains why, historically-speaking, Philippine foreign policy has generally been aligned with that of the United States, and Filipino leaders– especially those whose legitimacy is shaky, like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo– often see it useful to project that they have Washington’s blessings. On the other hand, like the Japanese, Filipinos view their relations with the United States, particularly the VFA, as inherently skewed. Seeing American presence in his country as a legacy of colonialism, even minor incidents involving Americans usually evoke memories of American mistreatment of the Philippines– from the Philippine-American War through the subsequent American colonial period, the Bell Trade Act of 1946, and the dumping of toxic wastes in Clark and Subic– in the Filipino’s mind.

Perhaps recognizing the effects of the Tubbataha incident on Philippine sensibilities, American Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas has issued a public apology on Friday, reinforcing earlier apologies issued by various officials of the US Navy. But while the Philippine government has acknowledged these acts of contrition, its agents, particularly the provincial government of Palawan and the Tubbataha Marine Park authorities, remain adamant. Even President Benigno S. Aquino III, whose administration has welcomed increased American presence in the Philippines amid tensions with China, appears irked, judging from the way he has asked incisive questions.

Meanwhile, leftist activists and politicians, driven by their chronic contrarianism against any Filipino government and their dogmatic hatred of the United States, have castigated the Aquino administration for its level-headed reaction to the crisis. For them, the President should have condemned Washington as strongly as he had condemned Beijing for its incursions into Philippine maritime territories. While this extreme view is probably isolated in the Philippines, both Manila and Washington would do well to recognize that an honest-to-goodness investigation that would reasonably address all concerns is of utmost importance. Needless to say, any perceived whitewash on the part of either government could potentially damage the Philippine-American alliance.

Obviously, the alliance is important not only for the Philippines, who sees America as a hedge against an increasingly threatening China, but also for the United States, who needs the foothold that the Philippines provides for its announced “pivot” to East Asia to be meaningful.

President Aquino would understandably be compelled by domestic considerations to push for an independent investigation of the Tubbataha incident. This should cover the reason why the minesweeper ventured into the protected Tubbataha waters, whether its captain culpably obstructed the work of the Marine Park Rangers, and the extent of the damage incurred on the Reefs. Should the result of this investigation warrants, the captain of the ship must be held accountable, and the United States should properly compensate for the damage its minesweeper has incurred on a Philippine national treasure. After that, both sides should constructively explore ways to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Ambassador Thomas, on the other hand, must convince his government that, as an ally, the United States must help President Aquino by cooperating with the investigation and respecting its findings. Failure to do so could make it difficult for the Philippine government to defend the VFA domestically, and perhaps make it easy for China to drive a wedge between the two allies.

The onus is, on one hand, for the Aquino administration to demonstrate that it can properly balance the country’s national interest of protecting the Reefs against its strategic interest of keeping its alliance with the United States strong; and, on the other hand, for the American government to demonstrate the extent of its respect for Philippine sovereignty.

In an editorial last week, the Inquirer has argued that, should the United States opt not to cooperate with any investigation, the Philippines should mobilize the international environmental lobby, including its American offshoots, to force Washington to cooperate. I see no reason why this should not be done. Still, it should not have to come to that. Ultimately, the bedrock of Philippine-American alliance is good faith and confidence between Manila and Washington, the maintenance of which is in the interest of both countries.

On Manila’s support for the “rearming” of Japan

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:

First of all, I don’t think this indicates a change in Japan’s standing among Asian countries. Unlike South Korea and China, which still hold deep grudges against Tokyo for its war crimes, Southeast Asian countries have never been distrustful of Japan in the first place, despite the fact that Tokyo has never really fully apologized for its wartime atrocities. Even in the midst of Chinese and Korean protests over the revisionism of the Japanese Ministry of Education, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, and former (and returning) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s insistence that there’s no evidence proving that the Japanese Imperial Army was engaged in sexual slavery during World War II, Southeast Asian countries have remained, at the very least, silent.

This is partly because massive Japanese investments and official development aid have arguably been the single, most decisive factor in ushering in a period of Southeast Asian economic development during the post-war period, which scholars dub as the flying geese model of development. Moreover, it was in an address to the Philippine Congress in Manila that former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda enunciated the so-called Fukuda Doctrine, which asserted that Japan would shun any military role and instead pursue economic cooperation with Asian countries regardless of their ideological inclinations. These had not only been reassuring for Southeast Asian countries; they also built robust Japanese soft power in the region, so much so that by the early 1980s, many Southeast Asian countries were already looking to Japan as a benign regional leader worth emulating. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammad’s Look East Policy comes to mind, for instance.

In other words, far from being an indication of changing Asian attitudes towards Japan, Secretary del Rosario’s comments merely reflected a reality that many Western observers often overlook, which is that there’s actually a dichotomy of Asian attitude towards Tokyo: Southeast Asia loves Japan, while Northeast Asia distrusts it.

I suspect the reason behind this dichotomy is the fact that Southeast Asia has a longer history of colonialism than Northeast Asia. This differences in history has resulted in differences in dispositions of these Asian states’ respective national pysches.

A very weak China had to cave in to Western domination in the early part of the previous century, but it was Japan’s brutal occupation from the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War through World War II that truly humiliated the Middle Kingdom. China had generally regarded Japan as some sort of a cultural vassal nation, and subjugation by an erstwhile vassal nation can be a huge blow to the psyche of a nation that regards itself as a civilization-state. As for  Korea, another proud nation, it had never been colonized prior its annexation by Japan in 1910. In sharp contrast, Southeast Asian nations, with the exception of Thailand, had been colonies of various foreign powers for centuries prior to Japan’s invasion in the 1940s. Since Southeast Asians had been used to colonial subjugation, Japan’s occupation of their countries might not have been as big a blow to their respective national psyches as it was to those of Korea and China; hence their willingness to forget past Japanese atrocities even sans appropriate apology from Tokyo.

Secondly, I don’t think the “rearming” of Japan would be an effective balancing factor in the region, and by “effective” I mean stabilizing. I might be oversimplifying Secretary del Rosario’s comments, but it seems to me that he’s arguing that Japan should have capable armed forces that can check China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

But the Secretary should know that Japan had in fact already rearmed a long time ago, when General Douglas MacArthur, in order to fill the vacuum left by American forces that were sent from Japan to the Korean War, allowed Tokyo to form the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Indeed, the JSDF has a maritime force that can annihilate the Chinese navy and even give the American Seventh Fleet a run for its money. So, when we talk of a “rearming” of Japan, we’re not talking about Japan having its own armed forces, for it already has a formidable one. What a “rearming” of Japan means is Tokyo discarding its war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution and allowing it to participate in military activities that are offensive in nature. A “rearming” of Japan means changing its armed forces’ name from Self-Defense Forces (自衛隊) to National Defense Military (国防軍), which, by the way, is exactly what incoming Prime Minister Abe wants to do.

Now, would discarding Japan’s pacifist disposition be an “effective” balancing factor? If Tokyo participates in active military alliances with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, would China turn less assertive in the South China Sea? Well, the argument invokes the classic realist balance-of-power calculus, which basically means that high fences make good neighbors. But– looking at the context of the East China Sea– we can see that Japan already has a very high fence, so why is China still not a good neighbor?

The problem with this realist perspective is that it assumes that states act rationally, and this assumption forms the basis of stability through balance-of-power theory. Well, if this were true, Japan would not have provoked the United States, which had a manufacturing capacity almost ten times greater than Tokyo’s, in 1941. But at that time, the myopic militarists, who were anything but rational, were steering Japan. In Beijing’s case, we know that the jingoistic hawks, buoyed by strong nationalist sentiments among the Chinese masses, are determined to steer China’s direction. And like the Japanese militarist of the 1930s, they are anything but rational– if they were, they wouldn’t have squandered China’s carefully-cultivated soft power by coming up with those maps and passports in the first place.

If anything, a re-militarized Japan would only fuel extreme nationalist sentiments in China, which would further embolden the Chinese hawks. The ruling Communist Party, seeing a need to pander to these jingoistic sentiments in order to preserve its legitimacy, would then be forced to act more aggressively to protect China’s perceived core national interests. It would only make China less rational. Far from being an effective balancing factor, therefore, the “rearming” of Japan would only further destabilize the already volatile regional situation.

Why Trillanes is the wrong man

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.

For starters, Senator Trillanes isn’t exactly known for his trouble-shooting abilities. In fact, it appears that he’s more of a trouble-maker: As a Navy commander in 1999, he allegedly rammed a Chinese fishing boat on waters around the Scarborough Shoal, causing a minor diplomatic ruckus with the People’s Republic. Then Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo L. Siazon had to convince his friend and fellow Japanese speaker, Vice Foreign Minister for Asian Affairs Wang Yi, that the collision was an “accident.” Beijing grudgingly accepted an apology from the government of then President Joseph Estrada, but demanded compensation from Manila, which the latter rejected. The potential fray was averted only after the Chinese-Philippine Chamber of Commerce offered to provide compensation.

Neither is the junior senator known for his tactical skills. His laughable coup attempts against the Arroyo regime were certainly not a showcase of strategy. I mean, really, taking over a posh hotel, and with only a handful of M16s and grenades? At least Arturo Tolentino brought crowds when he camped at the Manila Hotel back in the Eighties.

Sure, his come-from-behind election to the Senate in 2007 was indeed a coup, but that success was more because of the prevailing  national hatred for Arroyo than of Trillanes stratagem. Just look at how pathetic his attempted putsch against Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile was, and you’ll see how naive he is. As the Inquirer asked in an editorial, how can anyone expect him to know where the levers of power in Beijing are, when he doesn’t even know where the levers of power in Manila are?

Thirdly, he’s not a team player. Rather than complementing the efforts of the official point man, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, the senator stabbed him in the back. He called the Secretary a war-monger for taking the only rational track for the Philippines: Speaking forcefully against Chinese incursions and strategically raising the profile of the country’s military alliance with the United States, while insisting on multilateralizing the dispute. Worse, according to notes written by Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady, he even tried to sow intrigue by apparently pushing for Secretary del Rosario’s replacement by Liberal Party President and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas III.

Fourthly, he can’t keep his mouth shut. Rather than taking his qualms with Secretary del Rosario’s efforts to himself and just try to make wiggle room to allow more flexibility in crafting Manila’s position, the senator, according to Ambassador Brady’s notes, allegedly told the Chinese about his reservations with the Secretary’s policies, how the Philippines is too weak to enforce its claims on the Scarborough Shoal, and how “nobody in the Philippines cares” about the disputed shoal. These have exposed divisions within the Philippine side, and gave the impression that the Philippine stance is so weak all Beijing has to do is to wait for Manila to succumb to pressure, rather than to negotiate a way out. Thanks to the senator, the Chinese must have realized they don’t really need to pay for spies in the Philippines.

And despite all these, Senator Trillanes has the gall to say that his back-channeling efforts have resolved the crisis. That he had convinced China to pull most of its ships out of the shoal. Excuse me, but this is bullshit.

The formula for ending the stand-off was made neither in Manila nor in Beijing but in Washington, the capital of the country which Senator Trillanes wanted out of the equation. And the DFA, not the popmpous senator, was the one involved in establishing channels in these negotiations. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell prodded both sides to simultaneously pull-out of the Shoal to defuse tensions. Both sides agreed. Unfortunately, in a glaring misstep, Secretary del Rosario made the deal public, enraging Beijing who, in order not to appear weak to its domestic constituents, denied the agreement.

Beijing has since recalled most of its ships, but not before installing ropes supported by buoys to seal the Shoal’s inner lagoon to make sure no Filipino ships could enter it. The People’s Republic has practically established possession of the area. And Senator Trillanes’ calls this a success?

Being a back-channel negotiator, says former National Security Adviser Jose T. Almonte, is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. He knows what he’s talking about.  As Director of the National Security Council, he was part of the administration that successfully facilitated the defection of a ranking North Korean official and warned the United States of a terrorist plot to ram jets into major American buildings six years before 9/11. All these were accomplished quietly, but are now narrated in Trustee of A Nation, the comprehensive biography of former President Fidel V. Ramos written by that old Southeast Asian hand, Prof. W. Scott Thompson, with whom this blogger has the pleasure of corresponding.

“Negotiations should be held as a state secret. Under no circumstances should it be revealed. Only certain people must be allowed to know about it and agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs must not be compromised,” says General Almonte.

In other words, the back-door point man must keep his mouth shut and complement, rather than obstruct, the efforts of the official actors. These are exactly the things Senator Trillanes did not do. And President Aquino wants him to remain back-channel envoy?

Who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

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?

It’s true that Manila and Hanoi tried to raise their territorial disputes with China in the Phnom Penh meetings. Why wouldn’t they? The point of these multilateral gatherings is precisely to discuss regional issues, be they bilateral or multilateral in nature. Other parties also raised issues like the Korean nuclear crisis, for instance. Heck, even Cambodia raised its territorial dispute with Thailand. But did Manila and Hanoi try to turn ASEAN into a tribunal? Far from it. The two countries’ rationale was merely to discuss the issues and to explore ways to eventually resolve them, not to resolve them pronto. Indeed, the Philippines and Vietnam didn’t make the resolution of their disputes a pre-requisite for their acceptance of a communiqué.

The fact of the matter is, if one country can be blamed for the failure of ASEAN to issue that communiqué, it should be Cambodia. This blog won’t mince words: The Cambodians acted as Chinese proxies.

To recall, the task of drafting the joint communiqué had been delegated to a committee of four Foreign Ministers: Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Anifah Aman of Malaysia, Albert del Rosario of the Philippines, and Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. Secretary del Rosario’s view was that the communiqué should reflect the discussions on the South China Sea. The others didn’t find this unreasonable, and they were able to prepare the draft relatively smoothly.

But the rub is this: According to an account by Ernest Z. Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong repeatedly met his advisers upon receiving the draft communiqué, and thereafter “rejected language referring to Scarborough Shoal and the EEZ’s, even after multiple attempts to find a compromise.” Bower further claimed that substantiated reports by those present in the meetings indicate that “Cambodian officials shared drafts of the proposed joint statement with Chinese interlocutors.”

In other words, the Cambodians consulted their Chinese friends first before expressing their disapproval of the wordings of the communiqué, and they didn’t even make room for compromise. Even after the Philippines agreed to an Indonesian suggestion to change the wording to “affected shoal”, the Cambodians didn’t budge. Now, who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

“The host should have played a bigger role, but he didn’t,” an anonymous ASEAN diplomat told Reuters. But why would he? China has been lavishing Cambodia with high-profile economic and military aid– even the gleaming Peace Palace where ASEAN meetings were held was built with Chinese funds. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out who takes orders from whom.

Now, analysts in different capitals are pointing out that the failure of ASEAN to issue a joint communiqué undermines ASEAN as a bloc, and therefore works for China’s favor in the long term. I agree. But more than that, the failure at Pnom Penh represents an immediate and concrete strategic victory for China that many are not discussing.

Unknown to many, ASEAN has reportedly finished a draft containing possible elements of a code of conduct for parties in the South China Sea. The contents of this draft have not been revealed, but, according to Prof. Donald K. Emmerson of Stanford University, there is reason to believe that the draft code includes binding dispute-settlement mechanisms, which means that it could bind China against acting with impunity in the South China Sea, as it has been doing lately.

The problem is that without a joint communiqué to hail the drafting of the code as a diplomatic milestone, the draft would not have any official recognition and can therefore be easily dismissed by China as a useless white paper. Had the draft been enshrined in the communiqué, it would have been the news, not the discord between Cambodia and the Philippines; and China would have been put under pressure by world opinion to agree to the said code of conduct.

“Intentionally or not, when Hun Sen cancelled the communique, he prevented ASEAN from publicly and prominently validating the draft as the group’s official basis for negotiation,” says Professor Kemmerson.

Clearly, this has been a case of China employing its divide and conquer strategies, thanks to its friends in Phnom Penh. Indonesia is now scrambling to control the damages, dispatching its top diplomat to neighboring capitals to seek consensus. But one can bet that as long as the “ASEAN way” of decision by consensus remains, China, though its proxies, will always be successful.

Miscalculation in Manila

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.

Philippine officials may probably be forgiven for misreading China’s intentions. After all, both sides had agreed on a re-positioning of their vessels last week in an apparent attempt to de-escalate. It certainly is in China’s long-term geopolitical interest to see an end to the months-long stand-off. The smarter people in Beijing know that China’s assertiveness in Scarborough is squandering the gains of painstaking diplomatic efforts to project a peaceful rise, and is alienating the Asian neighborhood enough to make Washington’s strategic “pivot” successful. Unfortunately, however, the smarter people in Beijing don’t always call the shots.

But what’s probably unforgivable is Manila’s recklessness. There appears to have been no attempt to negotiate the pull-out, probably in adherence to Manila’s stubborn position of resolving the stand-off multilaterally instead of bilaterally. It appears that Philippine officials blindly thought that China will reciprocate a Philippine withdrawal– their only basis being nothing but the premise that it also is in China’s long-term interest to end the stand-off.  Apparently, no thought was given to China’s domestic political dynamics and how they are currently shaping Beijing’s policy. How dangerously naive.

The lesson of this episode is that, again, Manila should strive to understand how Beijing works. It appears that policy-makers there remain myopic; they still see the Scarborough dispute as a convenient ploy to divert their domestic constituents’ attention away from the ruling party’s shenanigans. This is a dangerous game on China’s part, as it could lead to an adverse situation for the Communist Party if it’s not played well.

As I have said in a previous post, 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. As things stand, Beijing’s hawks appear to be winning that debate. If so, Manila should brace itself. The next battle will be the Recto Bank, where Philippine companies are set to drill for natural gas soon. That area is a vital core interest for the Philippines, whose expanding economy is bound to create greater demand for energy in the immediate future.

The ball is now in China’s court

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.

China’s fishing boat aggression


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.

In 2010, a Chinese fisherman rammed his boat on a Japanese Coast Guard ship on the waters around the Senkaku Islands, causing a row between China and Japan. In 2011, on the other hand, Chinese fishing boats inflicted damages to oil exploration activities in Vietnam’s EEZ.

This is how Beijing’s fishing boat aggression works: Purportedly Chinese civilian boats will venture into the other country’s EEZ. When patrol boats of that country try to apprehend them, maritime patrol vessels from China’s Fisheries Bureau (under the Ministry of Agriculture) will suddenly appear to secure the Chinese boats, often resulting in a stalemate. China would then reiterate its so-called “inalienable right” to the disputed waters, and insist on a bilateral negotiation to resolve the stand-off.

As the stand-off drags, China would then flare up domestic nationalist sentiments by demonizing the rival claimants, like Japan and the Philippines, through its controlled media. This is then followed by economic pressures like the restriction of rare earth exports to Japan in 2010, the cancellation of tourist travels to the Philippines, and the dumping of Philippine banana exports in China. Finally, China would rattle its saber by making bold pronouncements of its willingness and capability to defend its territory militarily, just as it dismisses suggestions to resolve the disputes through mechanisms under international law. Meanwhile, Chinese fishing boats continue their activities, ignoring all protestations.

Obviously, China is employing this new strategy for two reasons. Firstly, Beijing wants to show that the disputed waters are indeed traditional fishing grounds for Chinese fishermen, in order to buttress its “historical claims” to the said maritime territories. Secondly, by using vessels from the Fisheries Bureau instead of, say, the Coast Guard, the Chinese side is trying to dodge accusations of aggressiveness by characterizing its activities in the area as being civilian in nature.

We have to acknowledge that the Chinese fishermen believe their government’s claims that the disputed waters are really Chinese territory, of course. But it cannot be denied that these fishermen know the danger of venturing into those disputed waters. Without the Fisheries Bureau’s backing, it’s less likely for these Chinese fishermen to risk chartering through these disputed waters. In other words, the boldness of the fishing boats to rummage the disputed waters stems from the protection given by the Fisheries Bureau.

Are these Chinese fishermen merely engaging in private economic expedition, or are they playing accomplice to China’s assertive policies in the disputed waters? It’s difficult to tell. But what’s apparent is that the weight of pressure that China employs whenever stalemates arise due to these fishing boats is indicative of the aggressive nature of Beijing’s South China Sea policy.

Clearly, Beijing is using these supposedly private fishing boats as a tool to advance its claims in the disputed waters. This fishing boat aggression is here to stay, and China’s rival claimants should know how to deal with it.

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China plays a dangerous game

There is an emerging analysis among students of Chinese politics 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 some 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.

Obviously, Beijing’s leaders believe that the Philippines would be a convenient target of nationalist sentiments since, unlike Vietnam or Japan, it doesn’t have the ability to threaten China back. “This is happening because the Philippines is so weak. The Chinese government can beat the war drums all they want, and as loud as they want, and no war is going to happen. It’s akin to bullying someone in a wheelchair that you know can’t punch back,” says The Comparativist, a Hong Kong-based blog.

But the bullying could go overboard, and if it does, there would be more headaches for China’s leadership.

We have to understand that there are jingoistic actors in China who genuinely believe that the Filipinos must be ejected from the Scarborough Shoal by force. Among them are some conservative officers in the navy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Hainan-based civilian maritime authorities, and even local governments. Can Beijing control these actors? Let’s hope it can, because the on-going state-encouraged nationalist outrage could embolden them to engage in highly provocative actions in the disputed waters. Indeed, they may even construe the saber-rattling from Beijing as a cue for them to do just that.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider the fact that there currently is a small armada of vessels belonging to China’s civilian maritime authorities floating on the waters around the shoal. The local government of Masinloc has reported that these ships are preventing Philippine fishing boats from entering the shoal’s inner lagoon. The Philippine government has advised the said boats to just carry on with their fishing. What would the Chinese ships do should a single, ballsy Philippine fishing boat insists on entering the lagoon? Given the nationalist uproar in China, it’s not hard to imagine that a Chinese sailor there might decide to either fire warning shots, fire at the boat, or sink the boat.

Now that would be a provocation at par with the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. The world would construe it as cold-blooded murder. It will surely result in an overwhelming international condemnation of China, totally undoing years of delicate efforts by Beijing to project a “peaceful rise.” It will likewise begin the process of pushing almost all Asian countries into the American orbit, hastening the success of Washington’s “pivot” to the East. Heck, it might even spark a regional arms race that could strain the resources of the region and, ultimately, of China itself.

Meanwhile, the Philippines, despite its weakness, would be forced by domestic considerations to respond. The United States, on the other hand, would be compelled by the Mutual Defense Treaty to back it up. Perhaps the Seventh Fleet would sail west of Luzon, just to send a message. If it ever reaches that point, the CCP would have to back down– and lose face in the midst of overwhelming nationalist outrage.

On Clinton’s ‘hands-off’ declaration

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.

China’s actions in the shoal these past eighteen days have made it apparent that its strategy is to gain control of the territory through bullying tactics, as opposed to the Philippines’ desire to resolve the stand-off through a rules-based mechanism. China also insists that the Scarborough issue is a bilateral matter that must not internationalized, but the Philippines thinks otherwise. By calling for a “collaborative and multilateral diplomatic process” to resolve the stand-off, therefore, Washington has basically adopted Manila’s stance.

Of course, by saying that it will abide by the MDT, the United States is merely being strategically ambiguous, since that treaty does not have an ‘automatic retaliation’ clause. Obviously, Washington intends to keep its options open. This should not be a source of concern for the Philippines, however, since strategic ambiguity also characterizes the American position on Taiwan. Indeed, in the event of an actual armed attack on any Philippine vessel in the shoal, the Americans will surely come to the Philippines’ aid, just as they will come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion from the Mainland. They just have to. Not doing so would make the United States appear unreliable in terms of honoring its treaty obligations, which will surely spook the four other treaty allies in the Pacific and turn away Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and the other Asian countries that the Americans have been trying to win over.

So, when militant leftist congressman Neri Colmenares said that Secretary Clinton’s declaration could embolden China “to start a limited war in the shoal just as it did to Vietnam,” we know that he’s just being, well, a typical militant leftist. This statement, which is a stark contrast to his Bayan Muna Party’s earlier demands for the US to stay off the territorial disputes, reinforces the perception that for the militant left, things are often a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The truth of the matter is that a shooting war in the Scarborough would be more probable had the United States declared support for the Philippines’ sovereignty claims to the shoal. Such a declaration would validate the suspicion held by many Chinese citizens that the Philippines is merely acting as a proxy for the supposedly vicious American agenda of encircling China and containing its rise. The hawks in Beijing– like General Luo Yuan and the Global Times, for example– could in turn use this to further fan nationalist flames, which would extremely limit the wiggle room for the Chinese government to make compromises with its Philippine counterpart. This would make it very difficult for both sides to diplomatically manage the on-going stand-off.

Clearly, despite these lawmakers’ concerns, the Philippines has been able to get the minimum American support it needs. Its negotiators, however, could have done better in pressing for greater American assistance in terms of upgrading the country’s terribly dilapidated armed forces. But that’s for another blog entry.

Manila should try to understand how Beijing works, too

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.

Manila is holding its ground by keeping its ships in the Scarborough while simultaneously rallying international support for its cause and intensifying its military alliance with the United States. Under the circumstances, these are the best insurance to at least maintain the status quo as the Philippines tries to elevate the dispute to international tribunals.

It is true that the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are still reluctant to take a collective stand on the crisis because of their deep economic ties with China, but that doesn’t mean that they are not concerned. Indeed, they have expressed these concerns through Track II diplomacy, and I’m sure that the smarter people in Beijing know that they, along with the world, would condemn China should it unleash its vastly superior navy on the Philippines. Gone are the days when might is right.

The smarter people in Beijing know, too, that taking the shoal from the Philippines by force would push almost all Asian countries to the American orbit. It will intensify the alliances between America on one hand and Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Australia on the other. It could make Vietnam an American ally, and Singapore, along with other ASEAN states, very friendly to the United States. It will totally undo a decade of efforts by China to rein in these Asian states through its “peaceful rise” overtures, and shift the region’s balance further towards Washington.

The Philippines, on the other hand, stands to gain tremendously by merely holding its ground. The longer the crisis drags and the tenser it gets, the more leverage Manila gains in, firstly, negotiating its way to get more military concessions from the United States, which will be pressured by public opinion to acquiesce, and, secondly, trying to rally the world into forcing China to bring the matter before international courts, where Manila stands to win.

Should the Chinese try to end the stand-off by firing the first shots, the United States will be forced to honor its treaty obligations and defend the Philippines. It won’t be different from what would happen if the Chinese invade Taiwan. Washington wouldn’t dare? It would, especially in an election year; and with world opinion supporting it to boot. The smarter people in Beijing know this, too.

Unfortunately, however, the smarter people in Beijing don’t always get to see their views become official policy. With too many different power poles and loose definition of where the lines between these poles are drawn, China’s policy-making can be unpredictable. The smarter people in Beijing form probably just one of these poles; the other poles can be either too myopic to see the dynamics of long-term balance-of-power realpolitik or just too jingoistic, or both.

Indeed, if we believe Gordon Chang, who says that the conservatives in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have gained too much leverage in Beijing’s policy-making circle, or the International Crisis Group, which says that purely domestic maritime agencies struggling for a say on the dispute in their efforts to protect their turfs have been steering China’s actions in the South China Sea; then we shouldn’t expect China to be always rational in dealing with this crisis. Japan realized this painfully when it became a target of China’s soft economic sanctions due to a similar stand-off near the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2010.

In order to avoid dangerous miscalculations, therefore, the Philippines should strive to understand the nuances of Beijing’s domestic politics and bureaucracy, and calibrate its actions accordingly. President Benigno S. Aquino III should include China hands — long-time Beijing resident and journalist Chito Sta. Romana comes to mind, for instance — in consultations and discussions on how best to deal with the Scarborough crisis.

Boldest stance ever

“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.

The traditional point of view among Philippine foreign policy makers and Manila’s commentariat is that the natural track for the Philippines is to rally the support of the ASEAN against China. The idea is that the Philippines is no match for China if it were to deal with it alone. But if it gets the ASEAN to deal with China as a group, there would be greater balance in terms of leverage. This formula had worked in the 1990s and, as a result, China was forced to sign the 2002 Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea.

However, the dynamics of ASEAN-China relationship have changed through the years. And, despite the optimism of its fans, it now seems that the ASEAN track, while still potentially workable, has become less viable for the Philippines. For instance, in the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting last week in Bali, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario failed to get the support of the ASEAN in rejecting the nine-dash claim of China over the whole of the West Philippine Sea. The nine-dash doctrine impedes freedom of navigation and is therefore against the interest of the maritime Southeast Asian states. Only fellow claimant Vietnam supported the Philippine position, while Malaysia and Brunei said they would study it. Perhaps the only victory for the Philippines in that meeting was the adoption of the implementing guidelines of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, but that had been pending for the past nine years. Besides, neither the Declaration nor its implementing guidelines would solve the disputes if Beijing continues to assert “undisputed sovereignty” over the whole sea. Del Rosario was correct in pointing out that China’s nine-dash claim should be seen as “a game-changer.”

The reason for this seeming inability of the ASEAN to tackle China is that, unlike in the 1990s when China was still an emerging regional power and ASEAN still had economic leverage over Beijing, the balance of leverage has greatly tilted towards China from 2000 onwards. As China’s economy began to grow and eventually overtake Japan’s, Beijing embarked on a charm offensive towards Southeast Asian states. Aside from strengthening trade ties, China offered investments, technological transfers and soft loans to ASEAN members. And the loans China offered were very lucrative for Southeast Asian kleptocrats indeed; the Chinese did not care whether Chinese aid went to where it was intended to or not. And why would they? They will get paid eventually anyway. Even the Philippines, during the Arroyo decade, benefited from this, prompting Arroyo herself to call China the region’s big brother.

As a result, ASEAN nations that are not party to the West Philippine Sea dispute are now reluctant to support the ASEAN claimants, perhaps fearing that weighing in on the disputes could be put their own bilateral ties with China at risk. Beijing’s charm offensive and “peaceful rise” overtures, obviously a disguise for a divide-and-conquer scheme, has apparently worked.

Apparently taking note of this new reality, the Philippines, while not abandoning the ASEAN track altogether, is seeking other options. Among them is international arbitration of the disputes by either the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), which Vietnam is supporting. “Vietnam joins the Philippines’ initiative in calling for a rules-based approach in resolving the maritime disputes,” saysVietnamese Ambassador to the Philippines Nguyen Vu Tu. China, however, has repeatedly rejected adjudication of the disputes by these international courts.

With the view of keeping the disputes a multilateral instead of bilateral issue, it seems that the next viable option that the Philippines, and even Vietnam, see is to continue dragging the United States into the dispute. The Philippines has sought the clarification of the United States position and an expression of American support for Philippine defense, which Manila got during Del Rosario’s visit to Washington last month. Similarly, Vietnam is falling into the American orbit.

This has put the United States on the spot. As a result, the Americans are doing a careful balancing act, as we have observed on this website before. On one hand, aside from the fact that China has trillions of US Treasury bills and that trade and investment ties between China and America is worth billions of dollars, the Americans need Chinese cooperation on many multilateral issues including nuclear proliferation, Libya and climate change. On the other hand, the Americans need to assure its partners (Vietnam) and allies (Philippines) in the region that it is more beneficial for them to maintain strong ties with the United States than not. This is to prevent Southeast Asia from falling into the orbit of China and China from gaining absolute control of the sea lanes in the West Philippine Sea, both of which would put the United States on a long-term geopolitical disadvantage.

But ultimately, in the event of actual conflict, I believe public opinion would compel the United States to, albeit reluctantly, come to the immediate aid of the Philippines. Of course, the Americans will try their best to prevent such a conflict. And this is where the President’s saber-rattling could have value.

When the President sends a message that the Philippines is serious about “defending what is ours,” he is raising the security stakes, from a broader regional perspective, in the West Philippine Sea. This gives new urgency to the United States’ efforts to discourage China from further escalating the tensions in the disputed areas. This makes making China behave not just a Philippine but an American objective. Indeed, it could even become an objective for cooler heads in Beijing as well.

“We do not wish to increase tensions with anyone, but we must let the world know that we are ready to protect what is ours,” says the President. And to back this bold posture up, he is beefing up the incredibly weak Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

“Soon, we will be seeing capability upgrades and the modernization of the equipment of our armed forces. At this very moment, our very first Hamilton Class Cutter is on its way to our shores. We may acquire more vessels in the future—these, in addition to helicopters and patrol crafts, and the weapons that the AFP, PNP, and DOJ will buy in bulk to get a significant discount.” Indeed, some have observed that the AFP’s modernization has been faster under Aquino’s one year than the fifteen years under the three previous presidents combined.

The message to China is clear. The Philippines is no longer under a meek leadership. Would the leadership in Beijing respond with caution, with the view that, while the Philippines may be no match for Beijing, any confrontation may lead to an escalation of conflict, and possibly even involve the United States, which would benefit no one? Or would the hawks there be further emboldened by what they and their nationalist constituency would see as arrogant provocations from the Philippines?

The ball is now in China’s court.

Will the US come to the Philippines’ aid in the Spratlys?

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.

Continue reading “Will the US come to the Philippines’ aid in the Spratlys?”

China’s credible challenge

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.

During the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi last July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” and supports “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.” China didn’t hide its displeasure over these comments, raising tensions in a region that, although long considered a flashpoint, had been relatively calm in the last few years.

The South China Sea is a vital international sealane that is believed to be rich in energy resources. It contains two groups of islets: the Paracels (claimed by Vietnam) and the Spratlys (claimed wholly or partially by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei). China claims ownership over the entire sea and all the islets it contains.

Until Clinton’s Hanoi statement, the United States had generally kept its hands off the South China Sea dispute. China had filled the vacuum created by the departure of American forces from the Philippines in the 1990s through its grab and talk tactics with little opposition from the United States. Initially, the ASEAN served as a credible check to China’s presence in the area but in recent years, the said organization has been unsuccessful in preventing the growing assertiveness of an increasingly confident China. Deviating from the spirit of the ASEAN-sponsored Code of Conduct in the area, for instance, Beijing has recently announced that its claim to the South China Sea is a “core interest”– a language that, analysts point out, had earlier been reserved only to Tibet and Taiwan.

Beyond the South China Sea, I think the bigger picture is the fact that, while the balance of power in Asia-Pacific is still heavily tilted towards the United States, the People’s Republic of China is presenting a serious challenge. And apparently, after years of relative apathy, the United States has decided to feign a response. As a result, the maneuverings between the two powers in the region have intensified particularly in the last few weeks. Although these diplomatic clashes are by no means alarming, they are worth our attention.

Above: The USS George Washington

There was, for instance, the joint exercises between South Korea and the United States, which Japan also joined, in the international waters of Northeast Asia. Supposedly meant to be a show of force to North Korea after the latter allegedly sank a South Korean warship earlier this year, the exercises featured the USS George Washington, America’s biggest aircraft carrier and a symbol of its naval power in this side of the world, and were scheduled to be held near the Yellow Sea, making China within the range ofWashington. Although the exerices were later moved farther to the Sea of Japan amid Beijing’s protests, the Chinese apparently still saw the drills as a demonstration of military power directed not only to North Korea but to China as well. This is because China has territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and with South Korea over the Socotra Rock in the Yellow Sea.

To make matters worse, Washington made a port call on Vietnam right after the exercises. It was said to be symbolic gesture meant to celebrate the normalization of Vietnamese-American relations but from China’s perspective, it was an assurance of, at the very least, American moral support for Vietnam’s efforts to ward off China’s assertiveness in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Not too long after that, United States military officials met with leaders of the Philippine military in Manila to discuss China’s “assertiveness” in the South China Sea. (Update: USS Washington and other US warships also made a port call in Manila on Sept. 4)

Perhaps partly in retaliation, Chinese President Hu Jintao received North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in his resthouse in the northeast last week. Some say receiving Kim in that particular location is a symbolic gesture similar to the way American presidents invite their favorite allies to Camp David. Apparently, Kim was able to get not only China’s blessing for his son’s succession but also the money needed to pull off a grand ceremony to appoint him. All these are significantly different from the way China maintained a calculated show of distance from North Korea in order to feign cooperation with the United States in solving the nuclear dispute during the Bush years. And the fact that these happen in the midst of the Obama administration’s effort to punish Kim with stronger sanctions so it could negotiate with him from a stronger position is not coincidental.

Also, China announced last Sunday that its navy would conduct its own military drills, with live ammunitions, in the East China Sea near the disputed territories with South Korea and Japan, a gesture that would likely be seen as a response to the US-South Korea-Japan exercises. For its part, the United States has also scheduled another set of military drills with South Korea in the same area next month.

Arms Race.

Central in this long-term balance of power game is Taiwan, which China has always wanted to reintegrate to itself by all means including force and which the United States is committed to defend. Earlier this year, the Pentagon released an 83-page report highlighting China’s military build-up that continues to shift the military balance in the Taiwan Straight towards the mainland. Investments have been made on more surface warships and submarines, an expanding arsenal of ballistic missiles and an air force capable of deploying at least 500 jet fighters over the Taiwan Strait.

The fact of the matter is that China has been increasing its military spending by at least ten percent every year. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a speech last May, emphasized that meeting this military posture is a priority for the Obama administration. He even called for the fusion of the US air force and the navy forces in the Pacific in a policy he called AirSea Battle, a mimic of the NATO’s Cold War-era AirLand Battle military doctrine that emphasized the importance of ”forward-deployed NATO tanks and missile-armed infantry supported by jet fighters carrying smart munitions” in countering the large Soviet army on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

It should ofcourse be emphasized that the US Seventh Fleet is still the biggest kid on the Pacific block. And overall, the United States armed forces are still miles ahead of China’s in terms of military hardware and technology. In fact, the American navy is still bigger and better-equipped than all the next ten biggest navies in the world combined.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Chinese aren’t catching up in the arms race with the Americans.

That is because the Chinese are using unconventional and creative ways to meet the American military posture in the region. Instead of acquiring the formidable military machines of the United States, which are expensive, China is instead identifying the vulnerabilities of those machines and developing cheaper weapons that could hit those vulnerabilities.

For example, instead of building an expensive and complicated network of satellite communication system that could match the United States’s the Chinese have instead developed a missile that could shoot down satelites from orbit, making the American satelite system extremely vulnerable and thus tipping the balance in space.

Also, instead of challenging American naval superiority by acquiring aircraft carriers, China developed instead an anti-aircraft carrier missile that has the capability of sinking American aircraft carriers. While China is still developing the technology to track a moving target and guide this warhead to it, once it does so the USS Washington, long considered the most powerful symbol of the US Seventh Fleet’s superiority in the Pacific, would become a virtual white elephant and the Americans’ capability to deploy forward forces with ease anywhere in the region would be severely compromised, thereby putting a halt to America’s global naval power projection.

Given these non-linear ways of challenging American military might along with the fact that China has been increasing its arms spending while America struggles to maintain its military posture amid stretched resources, it’s easy to say that China is fast becoming a credible rival of the United States in this part of the world.

To be continued (If I’m not lazy, that is)

Manila’s best options on the Spratlys 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?

Continue reading “Manila’s best options on the Spratlys dispute.”