Dual track trouble in the South China Sea
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - Despite China's recent agreement to re-negotiate a binding code of conduct (CoC) to peacefully resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the Philippines has upped the ante by buttressing efforts to internationalize the conflict, seeking third-party arbitration and deeper military commitments with both the United States and Japan.
In late June, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China agreed to return to the negotiating table, raising hopes of establishing concrete measures to rein in territorial tensions which have threatened regional security and the internal cohesion of the regional body. The two sides are
scheduled to meet in Beijing in September to discuss a CoC.
In the absence of a suspension of China's intensifying maneuvers in the disputed territories, including the regular dispatching of paramilitary flotillas to Parcels and Spratly chain of islands, smaller Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines have stepped up their hedging strategy.
ASEAN foreign ministers said after a preparatory meeting in Thailand this month that they would speak with "one voice" when meeting with China in September. Although Southeast Asian claimants share a consensus on the necessity of peacefully resolving the territorial spats, there has been a marked divergence in terms of individual strategic approaches.
Vietnam has carefully navigated its complex triangular relations with China and the US, with President Truong Tan Sang skillfully undertaking delicate, high-profile visits to Beijing and Washington in recent months, primarily to dampen tensions with the former, while deepening support from the latter.
The Philippines, on the other hand, has opted for the pressure track, which includes the negotiation of a more permanent US military presence, the relocation of the Philippine Navy and Air Force to its western flank in Subic, and an outright legal challenge to China's notorious nine-dash-line doctrine, which confers full Chinese sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea.
A major obstacle to the development of a CoC is the absence of a functional bilateral relationship between the Philippines and China. While Manila has accused Beijing of "bullying" and territorial expansionism, China treats the Philippines as a "trouble-maker" which has allegedly inflamed long-time territorial disputes by bringing in extra-regional powers into the conflict.
Critics have accused China of dragging its feet on establishing a concrete CoC, while its paramilitary forces have expanded their fortifications in disputed territories.
"China believes that there should be no rush [on establishing a CoC]. Certain countries are hoping that the CoC can be agreed on overnight. These countries are having unrealistic expectations," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in early August, dashing hopes of a speedy resolution of the ongoing disputes at the upcoming meeting in Beijing. "The CoC concerns the interests of various parties and its formulation demands a heavy load of coordination work ... No individual countries should impose their will on others."
In an indirect jab at the US and its Southeast Asian allies such as the Philippines, Wang attributed the earlier failure of developing a CoC to "disturbances from certain parties", while calling for parties to "make efforts that are conducive to the process so as to create the necessary conditions and atmosphere [for negotiation]".
Frustrated with the alleged lack of sincere diplomatic efforts, moderates in the Philippines have also joined the chorus of criticism against their own government, accusing it of abandoning engagement with China. Since early 2013, top Filipino officials, including foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario, have claimed that they have exhausted all diplomatic means to no avail - a claim they have used as pretext for scaling up foreign military ties and legal battles with China.
For many analysts, such statements are provocative and ultimately counterproductive. Chito Sta Romana, a Filipino expert on China, has argued that resolution of the disputes requires the combination of engagement and hedging. As many legal experts contend, the resolution of territorial disputes is often ultimately achieved by bilateral negotiations with parallel multilateral efforts serving as a complementary track.
Yet the gap in perceptions and deteriorating bilateral diplomatic ties have weakened the position of moderates on both sides, including China's new foreign minister and veteran diplomat Wang, who was instrumental in the development of the non-binding 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. There are indications that Del Rosario will soon step down from his position but it is far from clear whether his successor will re-invigorate engagement with China.
There is now widespread speculation in Manila that the Department of Interior Local and Interior Government Secretary Manuel "Mar" Roxas II, a contender for the 2016 presidential election, could serve as the next foreign policy chief. Assuming he takes over the position, there are reasons for optimism that ties with China could improve.
As a former venture capitalist and a top economic decision-maker in the Philippine government, he is known for his entrepreneurial acumen and strategic foresight - factors that could portend a diplomatic push to rescue sizable Philippine-China trade and investment. Yet, there are also worries that his presidential ambitions could have an impact on his conduct of foreign policy, since domestic political calculations will inevitably compete for his attention.
In the meantime, the Philippines has relied on an aggressive legal campaign at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hague to undermine China's claims to South China Sea features. Although Filipino officials hope that arbitration will provide a platform for the disputes to be settled through international law, some maritime experts have expressed doubts about its efficacy in resolving the disputes.
Since 2006, China has made it clear that it will not subject itself to any compulsory arbitration over issues that involve "maritime delimitation, territory and military activities". Moreover, China's nine-dash-line doctrine is deliberately vague by lacking any specific coordinates subject to legal scrutiny. It is thus difficult to imagine the ITLOS will be able to make any conclusive advisory opinion on the conflict.
A more careful look at Philippine intentions, however, reveals that the legal move is grounded in a political calculation, namely stepping up pressure on China and soliciting international sympathy for Philippine claims.
After earlier statements of support from the European Parliament and US Secretary of State John Kerry for the Philippines' move towards legal arbitration, the US Senate followed suit by passing Resolution No 167 in June, which among other things "condemn[s] the use of coercion, threats, or force by naval, maritime security, or fishing vessels and military or civilian aircraft in the South China Sea and the East China Sea to assert disputed maritime or territorial claims or alter the status quo".
The resolution was an explicit re-affirmation of both hawks and moderates support within the US legislature for "freedom of navigation" in the western Pacific, as well as an expression of solidarity with strategic allies such as the Philippines. The move drew a sharp rebuke from China, which dismissed the resolution as a "destabilizing provocation".
In an attempt to reinforce its defense of disputed territories, take advantage of more advanced logistics and military infrastructure, and enhance interoperability with the prospective expansion of US and Japanese forces in the country, the Philippines has also decided to move its Navy and Air Force to the Subic complex, which was a former US naval base and strategically faces the South China Sea.
"The location is very strategic. It has intrinsic features that make it a perfect area for the Air Force and Navy," Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said, explaining the rotational decision as a response to "a confluence of events" rather than directly citing the territorial disputes as the cause for the shift. "We are looking at how this can be implemented. We do not have specific timelines yet."
By some estimates the relocation to and upgrade of the Subic facility for the Philippine Air Force could cost up to 5.1 billion pesos (US$116 million). Manila is now scrambling for funds, with the US and perhaps even Japan as potential sources of financial assistance.
In addition, the Philippines is in intense negotiations over a new pact that will allow for an expanded US military rotational presence, with Del Rosario stating the Philippines is "ready to tap every resource, to call on every alliance" to defend its territorial claims.
In parallel, Manila is considering larger military acquisitions, including plans to purchase the French patrol ship La Tapageuse for the Philippine Coast Guard as part of a broader strategy of enhancing its minimum deterrence capability vis-a-vis China.
Despite ongoing multilateral efforts under the auspices of ASEAN to bring disputing parties to the negotiating table, the absence of constructive engagement between the Philippines and China remains a major obstacle for the peaceful resolution of the disputes and the enactment any time soon of a CoC for the South China Sea.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book From Arab Spring to Arab Summer: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at [email protected]
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