Philippines embraces US, repels China
By Al Labita
MANILA - A recent tussle over the Spratly Islands has dampened warming
China-Philippine relations and has reinvigorated Manila's strategic partnership
with the United States. The diplomatic realignment, forged over a territorial
dispute, could have important strategic implications depending upon Beijing's
reaction to Manila's more overt pro-US orientation.
For the first time in years, Manila lodged a strong diplomatic protest with
Beijing over alleged "harassment" on March 2 by two Chinese naval boats of a
Philippine vessel exploring for oil in the Spratly Islands' Reed Bank. "We
handed them a protest letter on
the incident ... We want to de-escalate the situation," Philippine President
Benigno Aquino told reporters.
In naval terminology, maritime "harassment" occurs when a ship is trailed,
approached, or blocked by another vessel or vessels. In the incident, the
Philippine vessel was sandwiched between two Chinese naval boats in an apparent
attempt to drive it away from an area in the South China Sea that Beijing
considers its territory.
Beijing shrugged off Manila's official protest, insisting as usual that the
Spratlys, which it refers to as the Nansha Islands, has been part of its
national territory since ancient times. Manila contended that the potentially
mineral-rich Reed Bank, an area within the Spratly group of islands and islets,
falls within its own 220-mile exclusive economic zone.
Manila dispatched two US-supplied war planes, the OV-10 Bronco, a bomber, and
the Islander, a combat-ready reconnaissance plane, to deter what it viewed as
intruding Chinese gunboats. Avoiding a confrontation, the two Chinese naval
vessels moved away to an unknown destination, allowing the Philippine oil
exploration ship to resume its activities. No Chinese plane was spotted in the
area, according to the Philippine Air Force.
Beyond deploying naval ships to conduct "sovereignty" patrols, Manila is also
in the process of installing radar equipment on nine Spratlys islands it claims
as part of Philippine national territory. The Philippines refers to these
islands as the Kalayaan, which means "freedom" in the local dialect. There are
also plans to upgrade and airstrip on one of the islands into a full-blown air
"We have an airstrip and all we have to do is to make an air base to augment
our maritime patrols, especially in the vicinity of our claimed islands," the
military's western command chief Lieutenant General Juancho Sabban said
recently. To date, Beijing has given no reaction to Manila's plans to upgrade
the air strip into an air base.
Some analysts believe Manila has been emboldened by recent strong overtures
from Washington. In what some perceive as a strategic pivot in Philippine
policy, foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario has made clear that the
United States remains the country's "sole" strategic partner.
That announcement followed the first ever bilateral strategic dialogue between
the Philippines and US, held on January 27-28 in Manila. During those
discussions attended by US assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell, both
agreed to raise bilateral cooperation on regional and global issues to a higher
level. The move seemingly comes at the expense of Philippine relations with
China, to which former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gave priority during
her nine-year rule.
Some have therefore portrayed the March 2 tussle at sea with China as a litmus
test of Aquino's pro-US foreign policy. The incident alarmed Washington and
some of Manila's Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) neighbors, including
Indonesia and Singapore.
Aquino and Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono discussed the South
China Sea issue during the Philippine president's official visit to Jakarta
between March 7-9. Aquino spokesman Herminio Coloma said Yudhoyono expressed
his hope that the South China Sea would not become a "place of open conflict"
but rather a "zone of potential economic cooperation."
During Aquino's visit to Singapore from March 9-11, Coloma said Aquino and
Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong also discussed the situation in the
South China Sea. Coloma said: "Prime Minister Lee also expressed the hope that
all outstanding disputes in that area will be adjudicated and resolved in
accordance with international law" and "that this is an area of opportunity for
development because of the natural resources in that area."
Brother in arms
In a March 14 phone call to the newly appointed del Rosario, US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton expressed concern over the March 2 incident and called
for the implementation of a legally binding maritime code of conduct among
claimants to the Spratlys. Apart from the Philippines and China, other
countries to have laid claims, either wholly or partly, to the chain of islands
and islets include Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
In her message to del Rosario, apparently intended just as much for China,
Clinton reiterated Washington's long-standing offer to mediate negotiations for
a code to ensure regional peace and stability in the maritime area. While the
US has not staked a claim to the Spratlys, Clinton has said related freedom of
navigation issues around the Spratly Islands are "core" to US national
China has resisted US intervention in the dispute, arguing that its involvement
would only hamper a resolution of the issue. Beijing has made known its
preference for bilateral negotiations over a multilateral approach to the
dispute. Before the March 2 incident, Yang Jiechi, China's minister of foreign
affairs, said the United States was ''ganging up'' with other countries against
China. In a more controversial statement about ASEAN countries, Yang was quoted
saying: "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and
that's just a fact."
After the March 2 incident, Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Liu Jianchao
told reporters in Manila that concerns over freedom of navigation in the South
China Sea are "no excuse" for any third party to get involved in the dispute.
Liu argued that US mediation in the overlapping territorial claims would
unnecessarily "magnify" the issue and make it more complicated and difficult to
Meanwhile US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr urged all of the
Spratly claimants, especially China, to avoid confrontation. "We urge restraint
on all sides," he said, adding that the overlapping claims should be resolved
at the negotiating table. "We believe that the ASEAN states and China should
sit down according to the 2002 Code of Conduct" which both sides sealed in
That agreement, however, was non-binding in nature and has wholly failed to
resolve the long simmering territorial dispute. Del Rosario, who is US-educated
and a former envoy to Washington, has expressed his agreement with the American
stance, voicing the need to conclude a legally binding regional code of conduct
to avoid hostilities between and among claimants.
"It is in the best interest of the region to transform this potential
flashpoint into a zone of peace, friendship and cooperation through sustained
consultation and dialogue," said del Rosario in a recent statement.
Washington was less active in the conflict under Arroyo. To her diplomatic
credit, Arroyo deftly played the China card through shuttle diplomacy
initiatives that forged closer bilateral ties with Beijing, extending beyond
the spheres of trade and investment towards more military cooperation.
A close friend to Chinese president Hu Jintao, Arroyo - now a congresswoman -
paved the way for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to provide the Armed
Forces of the Philippines (AFP) with heavy construction equipment and invite
Philippine soldiers to join PLA training exercises. The PLA also offered slots
to young AFP officers for military training in China.
In addition, the PLA agreed to an unprecedented US$12 million "logistics" deal
with the AFP, which included the supply on concessional terms of combat
helicopters, artillery and other modern armaments. AFP officers had complained
that the US failed to provide much of those same materials, despite the
much-ballyhooed Manila-Washington mutual defense treaty that emphasized joint
PLA-AFP relations, however, are now in diplomatic limbo with the recent tussle
in the South China Sea and Aquino's apparent re-emphasis on its strategic
alliance with the US. That marks a significant shift from Arroyo's perceived
pro-China initiatives and could have important strategic implications depending
on Beijing's reaction. As the old saw goes: there are no permanent friends,
only permanent interests. That's particularly true for the Philippines and
China in the South China Sea.
Al Labita is a Manila-based journalist.
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