Self-restraint must prevail over South China Sea row

bu-op-icons-satur Both by its extensive propaganda blitz and by conducting military drills in the Paracels, China seeks to impress upon the world its resolve to assert sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea – no matter how the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration will decide: to uphold or negate such a claim. The decision is set to be issued this coming Tuesday.

The Philippines has challenged the basis for the claim – a “nine-dash line” map drawn up in 1947 that encompasses several of our maritime claims and those of other neighbor nations. In 2013 the Aquino government filed a case at the arbitral court, after China seized and occupied the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off the Zambales coast, a traditional Filipino fishing ground. The case is anchored on the provisions of the 1996 United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea or UNCLOS.

China adamantly refused to participate in the case proceedings in The Hague, declaring it would neither recognize nor accept the court’s ruling. China’s foreign ministry spokesman’s latest statement says: “China does not accept any decision imposed by a third party as a means of resolution (of the dispute).” That practically throws out respect for a multilateral institutional process and the rule of law.

Instead, China insists that bilateral negotiations are the only acceptable means of resolving pending conflicts with the Philippines as well as with Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan who are all affected by its claim.

Legal experts who have followed the progression of the case predict the court will rule in favor of the Philippines. One of them, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, has provided substantial documentary evidence for the case to debunk the Chinese claim.

China is obviously vexed. A ruling negating its claim – although no mechanism is provided for its enforcement – will provide the Philippines a stronger moral high ground in seeking international support to pressure China to abide by it. Further, the ruling can be potentially useful for the other affected states in asserting their respective maritime claims.

It’s therefore not surprising that China, through one of its official publications, China Daily, recently offered to start negotiations with the Philippines on SCS-related issues, “such as joint development [of maritime mineral and other resources] and cooperation in scientific research.”

However, the offer is premised on this condition: “if the new [Duterte] government puts the tribunal’s ruling aside before returning to the table for talks (underscoring mine).” Whoever in China’s officialdom imposed such a ridiculous condition could either be joking or, worse, imperiously arrogant. If it’s the latter case, which is more likely, the Chinese leaders are greatly mistaken.

They may have misconstrued as weakness or naivete President Duterte’s public statements regarding the arbitral court’s anticipated ruling. While expressing optimism that the court will rule in our favor, the president has said he wouldn’t flaunt it. But if the ruling is not favorable, he would accept and abide by it. Whatever the judgment of the court, once he receives a copy, Duterte has vowed to act accordingly based on the national interest. A very reasonable, commendable stand.

Then he added, as if addressing China, “When (the ruling) is favorable to us, let us talk.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. elaborated that the new government wants to re-establish closer relations with China. (Relations were strained under the Aquino government, which called on the US to help confront China’s aggressive actions in the SCS.) In the event of bilateral talks with China, Yasay sees the need for a “special envoy to help us in reaching out on back-channel basis.”

Moreover, in light of President Xi Jinping’s bragging that China is “not afraid of trouble” and its state media’s saber-rattling over the SCS, President Duterte reiterated his pronouncement before he assumed office last June 30: “We are not prepared to go to war. War is a dirty word.”

Yasay segued: “Nobody wants to resolve our conflict in a violent manner, nobody wants war,” adding, “It is my understanding that the President would like to maintain stronger, better relationships with everybody, including China, the United States, Japan, and all.”

But war between the Philippines and China consequent to a court decision adverse to China is not the cause for concern. It’s the mutual display of maritime military prowess in the South China Sea and intensified war-mongering between the US and China that tend to create the specter of looming war.

For instance, reacting to the US deploying two of its biggest aircraft carriers to patrol in the SCS, China’s Global Times, in an editorial, urged China to speed up the development of its military deterrence capabilities (China has only one aircraft carrier). It boasted:

“Even though China cannot keep up with the (US) militarily in the short term, it should be able to let the (US) pay a cost it cannot stand if it intervenes in the South China Sea disputes by force. China hopes disputes can be resolved by talks, but it must be prepared for any military confrontation. This is common sense in international relations.”

The People’s Daily, China’s prime newspaper, declared in an editorial:

“If the United States, regardless of the cost, chooses the path of ‘brinkmanship’ that pressures and intimidates others, there will be only one result, that is, that the US bears all the responsibility for possibly further heightening tensions in the South China Sea.”

The US response: It doesn’t seek confrontation with China, but if the latter ignores the court ruling it would, among other measures, step up patrols close to Chinese-claimed islands in the SCS.

So far, no outright talk of a shooting war. It will be best for all the parties concerned that the US and China exercise self-restraint – before and after the arbitral court’s ruling is handed down on July 12.

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Published in the Philippine Star
July 9, 2016

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