There are only two real adversaries in the conflict in the South China Sea — the US and China. All the rest are supporting cast (including the Philippines) with subplots of their own. At the center of the conflict is the superpower race that even the protagonists themselves hesitate to admit. All manner of prevarications are used to obscure that single issue.
Martin Jacques, the author of When China Rules the World, who was here in Manila, summed it up thus. “There has been an extraordinary and irreversible shift of power from the West in general and the United States, in particular, to China.
But neither the American nor the Chinese government has admitted to this shift of power. On the surface at least it has been business as usual.
This is an illusion but a forgivable one nonetheless. There is a strong imperative for the two countries to continue with their preset modus vivendi; a shift in the tectonic plates is bound to complicate this. Signs of growing difficulty were already evident from around autumn 2009.”
Among those difficulties is China’s seemingly more assertive position with regard to the South China Sea.
In my opinion, it is with this background in mind that the Aquino government should formulate a more realistic policy on the South China Sea conflict instead of conducting false popularity surveys to support its unsupportable position.
Had we had a more realistic and well-studied policy approach on our conflict with China we should have paid attention to a statement by US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on February 5, 2014.
Russel gave a clear and unequivocal statement of the US official position on China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea.
It confirmed what author Jeffrey A. Baker wrote earlier. It concerns the importance of the US making the statement, rather than that of the substance of the declaration itself. That is a separate matter. The article appeared in http://www.brookings.edu on February 6, 2014.
“For the first time, the United States government has come out publicly with an explicit statement that the so-called “nine-dash line,” which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan assert delineates their claims in the South China Sea, is contrary to international law.”
The essential part of that policy declaration states: “Under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features. Any use of the ‘nine-dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea.”
What this means is that the US has now come forward with a position that it can and is obliged to bring the issue to an international court of law. It should stop relying on a small, defenseless country like the Philippines to do its fight for it. There is a phrase for the humiliating position it has used the Philippines. It has used the Philippines as its cat’s paw until now. With its unequivocal statement of policy, the US can very well present its legal position.
As for the Philippines, it should now feel free to craft its own approach for its own interests. The US can very well take care of its own interest on the nine-dash line controversy without the Philippines kibitzing and getting into nonsensical statements comparing China to Hitler and the dispute to the fate of Sudetenland in World War II. More than ever, it should take the path that Vietnam, another claimant, took which is to pick up China’s offer of bilateral negotiations.
This “diplomatic pivot” is a job for our secretary of foreign affairs and the DFA. This route has now been opened with the Russel statement defining the US position on the nine-dash line and its concern for its implications for freedom of navigation. The latter, by the way, is not expressed as a concern of the Philippines.
With the Philippines doing a diplomatic pivot, it will help bring about a regional “détente” and what all Asean countries want – a lasting regional peace.
The core national interest of the Philippines is sovereignty and maritime jurisdictional issues. Freedom of navigation is not a problem so the noises being made are mimics from the US.
There is a difference between the Philippines and the United States national interest.
There is a suggestion that with the US open declaration of its own public unequivocal objection to the nine-dash line, perhaps it should then join the Philippines in invoking ITLOS compulsory procedures to resolve its own concerns.
Although the US is not a signatory to the UNCLOS it can still proceed with its objections to the international maritime body. It has become international law, a status that the United States has buttressed by a Presidential Declaration committing the United States to abide by and implement the UNCLOS.