New fault lines in the South China Sea
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - After a months-long failed attempt to revive diplomatic channels with China's leadership, Philippine President Benigno Aquino upped the ante in their simmering territorial conflict by likening China to Nazi Germany.
To the surprise of many analysts who expected Manila to focus this year on improving strained bilateral ties with Beijing, Aquino argued in an exclusive interview this month with the New York
Times that China's increasing territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea is comparable to Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland in 1938.
Aquino has sought greater international support, particularly from the United States, for his country's claims in the contested waters, a dispute it has submitted to the Hague for international arbitration. Aquino warned in the interview that appeasing Beijing on the issue could ultimately lead to a new world war.
"At what point do you say: 'Enough is enough'? Well, the world has to say it," Aquino said, prodding its allies for more active strategic support. "Remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II," he said.
Aquino's interview came soon after similarly shrill comments made by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the World Economic Forum summit in Davos in mid-January. Abe, who has taken a more hawkish approach towards China than his recent predecessors, likened current Sino-Japanese relations to the pre-World War I era and warned against China's supposed threat to global peace and stability.
China lashed out against Abe's comments and reacted similarly against Aquino's provocative comparison. The state-run Xinhua news agency ran a commentary which described Aquino as an "amateurish" leader who "has never been a great candidate for a wise statesman in the region".
The diplomatic barbs have further dimmed prospects for a near-term resolution of the South China Sea disputes, undermining earlier efforts to establish a binding multilateral code of conduct and raising the potential for a military showdown in the area in the months ahead.
China's alleged plans to impose a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ) for the South China Sea raise that risk. Last November, China imposed an ADIZ in the East China Sea, arguing that the move was consistent with established international practices to protect countries' sovereign airspace.
Critics have characterized the move as "quasi-legal", as it covers contested territorial areas in the East China Sea. The US and northeast Asian allies Japan and South Korea swiftly rejected the move and challenged China's ability to enforce the measure by dispatching fighter jets and holding military exercises in the area.
Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have expressed concerns that China could impose a similar measure for the South China Sea, saying they lack the independent military capabilities to challenge it.
In early February, the US State Department warned China against imposing an ADIZ in the South China Sea, saying it would constitute a "provocative and unilateral act".
Washington's warnings came on the heels of a report by the Japanese daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun, which claimed Chinese military authorities were pushing for the implementation of an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
US Captain James Fanell, director of intelligence and information operations at the US Pacific Fleet, predicted weeks later at a recent US Naval Institute conference that China would impose a new ADIZ in the South China Sea by 2015 at the latest.
Shortly after, in mid-February, despite the Chinese Foreign Ministry's categorical denials, Colonel Li Jie, a prominent researcher at the PLA Navy's Military Academy, told Reuters that it is "necessary for China's long-term national interest" to impose an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
China's introduction in early January of a new maritime regulation administered by its southern province of Hainan that imposed new restrictions on the entry of foreign fishing vessels into Chinese-claimed maritime territories had already raised alarm among Southeast Asian claimants in the area.
In enforcement of the new measure, a Chinese coastguard ship on January 27 used a water cannon to drive Filipino fishermen out of disputed waters around the Scarborough Shoal, Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Emmanuel Bautista told journalists on Monday.
With an eye towards China's expanding military exercises in the South China Sea, maritime experts from the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam met in Manila in mid-February to discuss potential avenues for cooperation and conflict prevention in the disputed areas.
Representatives from the three countries agreed to meet again in March in Malaysia to further coordinate their efforts, with hopes that there will be increasingly high-level exchanges on building a common Southeast Asian position on the disputes.
With lingering uncertainties over the prospects of a legally-binding Code of Conduct under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Southeast Asian claimant states are beginning to take matters into their own hands by more urgently pursuing cooperative conflict prevention mechanisms.
For example, in late March the Philippines is expected to push ahead with challenging China's expansive territorial claims outlined in its so-called "nine-dash line" doctrine through its arbitration case now being heard at The Hague.
China has consistently rejected third-party arbitration of its territorial South China Sea disputes, and has vigorously criticized the Philippines for "internationalizing" what Beijing has consistently characterized as a purely bilateral issue.
The Philippines hopes that Vietnam and Japan will follow its legal lead by separately pursuing their own arbitration cases for their individual territorial disputes with China.
Filipino officials have eagerly shared their legal expertise on maritime disputes with neighboring states, and believe that China will be more amenable to compromise if there is a coordinated region-wide legal challenge to its nine-dash line doctrine - the nine dashes being how China delineates on its maps its claimed offshore territory.
Still, there are growing concerns in Manila that if other Asian states do not soon join the Philippines' legal approach to the disputes, it will be easier for China to dismiss any final ruling on the arbitration case handed down by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Bolstering Manila's case, the US has started to more openly criticize China's approach to the South China Sea disputes. Aquino's provocative statements against China were echoed in more diplomatic language by Washington, with top US officials taking the unprecedented step of directly questioning Beijing's nine-dash line doctrine and its long-term strategic objectives in the region.
"Any Chinese claim to maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law," Danny Russel, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said on February 5 before the US Congress.
"China could highlight its respect for international law by clarifying or adjusting its claim to bring it into accordance with international law of the sea," he said, citing Beijing's restrictions on access to the contested Scarborough Shoal, pressure on the Philippines' longstanding presence at the Second Thomas Shoal and the new Hainan fishing regulations.
Previously, Washington declined to take any direct position on the disputes, preferring instead to present itself as a neutral external party. At the same time, Washington has emphasized that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is part of its national interest.
During his mid-February visit to the Philippines, US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert raised Manila's hopes of direct American assistance in the event of an armed conflict with China in the South China Sea.
"Of course we would help you. I don't know what that help would be, specifically. I mean we have an obligation because we have a treaty," Greenert said, referring to the two sides 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Questions have been raised whether the US would be obligated to respond in the scenario of an attack on contested Philippine territory.
America's mutual defense obligations will likely be formalized with the anticipated finalization of a new bilateral defense pact, which, depending on the final terms of the deal, could dramatically bolster the Philippines' minimum deterrence capabilities vis-a-vis China.
In particular, the Philippines could benefit from the stationing of more sophisticated American weaponry on its shores as part of a larger US rotational military presence. The deal could also open the way for more joint-military exercises and the possible lease of advanced American hardware to Filipino troops.
Obama's planned visit to the Philippines in late-April is expected to coincide with the formal signing of the new military agreement. "I haven't been presented major sticking points, so I assume we are close to it [signing a new military agreement]," Aquino told Bloomberg in late-February. "I won't say that we're a day away from it, but we're very, very close."
With Obama's upcoming trip to the wider region, there is a sense that the US's so-called "pivot" to Asia is finally beginning to take shape. It has the stated aim of having 60% of the US's naval assets in the Indo-Pacific region by 2020, and the Philippines is poised to be one of the largest beneficiaries of the strategic shift.
It is still unclear, however, whether a larger American footprint will translate into calmer or more turbulent waters in the South China Sea. The US's recent moves and pronouncements will inevitably be perceived as a threat by China and could motivate a counter-response to further press to its territorial claims and show opposition to the emerging regional alliance aimed at containing its rise and influence.
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 How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Copyright 2014 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)