Absent a formal agreement between the Philippines and China, the latter lifted last week its naval blockage that, for the past four years, had prevented Filipino fishers from gaining access to their traditional fishing areas in the Panatag/Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea (WPS/SCS).
Although it’s an ad interim or status quo ante situation – as one may choose to regard it – the Chinese action is a positive result of President Duterte’s four-day official visit to China (Oct. 18-21). It fulfilled the hope he expressed in a speech on Oct. 23 before typhoon-ravaged residents of Cagayan and Isabela. Relating his discussion with China’s President Xi Jinping, he said:
“We did not talk about war. We talked about how to help each other. Let us wait for a few more days, we might be able to go back to Scarborough Shoal.”
The Chinese action is significant, in light of the fact that, according to Duterte, he and Xi candidly declared their respective firm positions on sovereign rights over the disputed shoal, whose bountiful fishery resources both countries had shared amicably for hundreds of years.
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“China said it’s theirs. I also told them it is ours,”Duterte narrated. “I told [Xi] we won the case [at the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague] and we were told that [Panatag] belongs to us. But anyway, the problem is, [Xi] said, ‘That belongs to us historically, and we will not give it up.’ And I said, ‘Much more on our part, because we won in court.’”
The strategic standoff is starkly clear, but the two presidents saw it wasn’t the time to try to settle the dispute. They agreed to resolve it peacefully through future negotiations. However, they struck an informal agreement that indicated a positive change was afoot in the situation at Panatag: Once the fishermen of both sides returned to the shoal, they should keep out of the lagoon, where the fish spawn, to avoid depleting the fish resources in the surrounding areas.
National security adviser Hermogenes Esperon, who was with the President’s entourage, dubbed the relaxed situation at Panatag a “win-win” arrangement for the Philippines and China, While there was no talk on territorial rights, he observed, the Chinese “respect[ed] our traditional rights.”
Correspondingly, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, asserted China has continued to exercise jurisdiction over the shoal. However relations between China and the Philippines, she said, “have comprehensively improved, and under such situation, China has already made some proper arrangements with regard to issues of concern to President Duterte.”
How long can these “proper arrangements” at Panatag last? What are their implications on the overall situation in the WPS/SCS, and on the standing of the United States?
In this regard, an interesting fact-based analysis is provided by Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the United States Studies Center, University of Sydney in Australia.
If the arrangement lasts, Townshend says, it will be chalked up as a victory for Duterte’s China state visit – and a geopolitical setback for the United States. “Beijing has pulled off a diplomatic masterstroke,” he notes adding that China thus “earned goodwill from Manila and wedged the US-Philippine relations by ending its illegal activities” in Panatag.
China welcomed Duterte’s announcement, during his visit, of “separation” from the US and realigning the Philippines with China in pursuit of an independent foreign policy. And it was music to China’s ear that he agreed to resolve the maritime claims dispute through peaceful negotiations.
Yet China hasn’t really given away much. It hasn’t dropped its claim on Panatag and almost the whole of the SCS. It still refuses to accept the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling negating its claim. But China “in fact has brought itself in line” with the court’s ruling, Townshend points out, referring to the tribunal’s finding that China has violated the Philippines’ right to fish freely in Panatag.
Wittingly or not, the analyst adds, it now becomes unseemly for China to carry out alleged plans (according to US sources) for land reclamation to build a military airstrip on Panatag. Thus the lifting of the blockade has removed an ongoing source of Chinese leverage over Manila. “This suggests Beijing is serious about making actual compromises to improve ties with Manila at Washington’s expense,” Townshend concludes.
In effect, China’s compromises at Panatag will strengthen Phl-China rapproachement, and may lead to a change in how the Filipinos view China and veer away from the US, opines Townshend. In turn, he adds, this would reduce the need for US military aid, thus downgrading the Phl-US military alliance.
Furthermore, the US may not only lose the Philippines as a 70-year subaltern-ally. Townshend sees the probability of other Asian countries following Duterte and distancing themselves from the US.
In fact, Malaysia has just done that. Prime Minister Najib Razak is currently on a week-long state visit to China, and has already forged a defense deal that includes the purchase of four Chinese naval vessels (Malaysia used to procure US-made defense hardware). Najib has also agreed to pursue its low-profile maritime claim dispute with China via bilateral negotiations.
Ironically, the US is to blame for these setbacks, Townshend says. After China seized Panatag in 2012 and the P-Noy government called on America for military backing, invoking the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The Obama government declined, asserting that the MDT didn’t apply to our territorial and maritime claims in the WPS/SCS.
China then sensed that the world’s superpower lacked resolve to aid its ally. Thus, after the US brokered a deal for both China and the Philippines to withdraw their naval ships from confrontation at Panatag, the Philippines complied. China did not. And over four years the US was unable to craft a viable strategy to get China’s ships out of Panatag.
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Published in the Philippine Star
Nov. 5, 2016