Can US take a softer, wiser tack on maritime row?

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Since my first column piece (this is the sixth) on our maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea, I have consistently urged the Aquino government to stand firm against Chinese incursions, but advised maximum use of diplomacy towards resolving the conflict.

In that first piece (“Deal firmly with China,” June 25, 2011) I cited how the issue started to get muddled by Malacanang’s appeal for US military support invoking the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, and Sen. John McCain’s call for the Obama government to extend military and political support to ASEAN members having territorial and maritime disputes with China. (In Congress, Bayan Muna representatives Teodoro Casino and Neri Javier Colmenares argued that “finding peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the dispute sans US meddling will make the Spratlys [less] of a flashpoint for military engagement than it is at present.”)

Promptly reacting, China’s vice foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, cautioned the US to leave the disputes to the claimant states for bilateral resolution, warning that American involvement may worsen the situation. Although concurring with such warning, I ended that piece with this advice: Beware of China’s insistence on bilateral resolution of any dispute.

A lot has happened in the last four years. Belatedly filing in 2013 a case against China at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea – which has been given due course – the Aquino government has continued to encourage/invite US interference.

Last year, it signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which would effectively restore multiple US military bases in the country. Last January it signed a Memorandum on Defense Cooperation and Exchanges with Japan, the contents of which have not been fully disclosed.

Banking on the dubious constitutionality of these “executive agreements,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin has announced that the US, Japan and “other allies” would be allowed access to Philippine military bases under a plan to “roll back” China’s aggressive actions in the area.
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In Washington this week, President Obama and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met to finalize new bilateral defense guidelines that would involve, among others, joint US-Japan maritime air patrols in the South China/West Philippine Sea. This development is expected to rile China, which has had a bitter sovereignty dispute with Japan in the East China Sea over the Diaoyu/Sensaku islands chain.

Can this unfolding scenario of probable military confrontation between China and the US-Japan tandem be averted?

Maybe. But that can happen only if the US adopts a softer, wiser tack in its approach – by taking a “less confrontational stand towards China,” by mediating or facilitating a “negotiated settlement” among the claimants of the contested areas, using the international law doctrine called uti possidetis (meaning “what you have you may continue to hold”). The doctrine recommends peaceful coexistence in settling quarrels and controversies.

Such an approach was broached by Charles W. Freeman Jr. (a former defense official and retired US ambassador), speaking in a seminar at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University last April 10.

“The transformation of claims between the South China Sea’s littoral states into a test of wills between Washington and Beijing has added an unhelpful overlay of great-power rivalry to an already complex mix of impassioned disputes,” Freeman observed. He described as “ahistorical, disingenuous and unpersuasive” America’s 2010 assertion at a regional meet in Hanoi that it had “a mandate to prevent violent changes in the status quo” — at the same time declaring that it took no position on the conflicting claims.

Long before it decided to “pivot to Asia” 60 percent of its maritime and other military assets, Freeman pointed out, the US Navy facilitated China’s replacement of Japan’s military presence in both the Spratly and Paracel island groups in 1945, after the latter’s defeat in World War II. From 1969 to 1971 the US operated a radar station in the Spratlys under the flag of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Neither the Paracels nor the Spratlys mattered to the US at all “until they became symbols of Washington’s determination to curtail the rise of China’s power along its periphery,” Freeman noted, adding that more than the US, China and other countries on the South China Sea have a far greater stake in assuring freedom of navigation in and through it.

“It is not in the US interest to perpetuate the antagonisms that now inflame relations between claimants in sections of the (SCS),” he averred. Such antagonisms, he stressed, “poison Sino-American relations as well as other littoral states’ relations with China. China’s neighbors have to live with China, and China has to live with them.”

The Cold War may have taught the US that “safety lay in deterring conflict rather than in attempting to address its [root] causes,” Freeman said. But applying this approach to the dynamic situation in the SCS today, he warned, “perpetuates rather than controls risk and escalates rather than subdues tensions.”

US interests would be far better served by a bold attempt to eliminate the causes of conflict than by continuing the futile pursuit of mechanisms for managing tensions, he emphasized, adding:

“Having taken sides against China, the (US) cannot now hope to mediate between the parties. But it can make it clear that it would welcome, accept, and support the negotiated settlement of their differences.”

Given its multiplying geopolitical-military entanglements in Europe (with Russia in Ukraine), the Middle East and North Africa, can the US change tack in Asia? Will its military-industrial complex allow it to do so?

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Published in The Philippine Star
May 2, 2015

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