Chinese President Hu Jintao told participants of the on-going Boao Forum for Asia* (Asia’s version of World Economic Forum) that China will play a constructive role in resolving regional hotspot issues and take an active part in various forms of regional security dialogue and cooperation in order to preserve a regional environment conducive to peace and development in Asia. Most importantly he mentioned that his country will remain committed to seeking peaceful solutions to disputes with neighbours over territory and maritime rights and interests through friendly negotiations. Reacting to the statement of the Chinese statesman, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III through his spokesperson said that his government agrees with China’s call to Asian nations to resolve peacefully territorial claims over the Spratly Islands.
Spratlys, a chain of more than 100 islands or reefs lying in the busy maritime commercial path of South China Sea, contested by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. These islands are rich fishing grounds and believed to have vast deposits of oil and natural gas. In a 1968 official Chinese government white paper, it was estimated that Spratlys holds oil and natural gas reserves of 17.7 billion tons surpassing than that of Kuwait.
Spratly Islands is a very possible flashpoint of an armed conflict in the near future between China and other Southeastern Asian nations with the backing of the United States. Let’s take a cursory look at the history of conflict involving Spratlys. In 1971, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos ordered the removal of Taiwanese military base occupying the largest Spratlys island, Itu Aba, but were repulsed. In 1974, China decimated South Vietnam troops holding Paracel island in the Spratlys. In 1975, North Vietnam seized six islands from South Vietnam forces holding several other more islands in Spratlys. In 1983, Malaysia occupied Swallow Reef, followed by two other formations nearby. In 1988, China and Vietnam fought the Battle of Fiery Cross Reef, in which 75 Vietnamese were killed or missing and three of their vessels set ablaze. In 1995, China temporarily occupied Mischief Reef angering Philippine President Fidel Ramos. In 1999, Vietnamese soldiers reportedly shot a Filipino fisherman. In May 1999, a Chinese fisherman died involving his fishing boat and a Philippine Navy vessel. In July of the same year, another Chinese fishing boat sank after colliding with a Philippine naval vessel trying to apprehend it. That same year as well, Vietnam reportedly fired on reconnaissance aircraft of the Philippines, which also accused the Chinese of shooting at one of its patrol planes. In 2000, the Philippine Navy boarded two Chinese fishing boats in Scarborough Shoal, at 128 nautical miles from the country, well within Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. In 2010, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in Vietnam that the U.S. has “national interest in the South China Sea” and supports a multilateral, regional solution to the dispute. The statement from the United States angered China and considered it as an “an attack on China”. This year, last March, the Philippines government send its miniscule military troops after Chinese marine patrols “intimidated” a Philippine seismic research vessel along an in the Spratlys claimed to be an official part of the Philippines.
What can the Philippines do in pursuing its national interest vis-à-vis the Spratlys dilemma and China? I’d like to offer three policy choices for my home country, the Philippines. Policy Choice #1: Multilateral approach and a more America-aligned policy. Policy Choice #2: Bilateral approach and a more Chinese-aligned policy. Policy Choice #3: The ideal and nationalist approach.
Policy Choice #1: Multilateral approach and a more America-aligned policy. The Philippine government’s initial diplomatic move to send a “Spratlys expert” to Beijing after the March incident in Spratlys is a not very well thought of move. I wonder what would the non-Mandarin speaking Filipino technocrat do in Beijing. Why should the Philippine government send someone in Beijing? It should be the other way around. Is it not that the Chinese patrol vessel “intimidated” a Philippine vessel on its territory? This is unprecedented. Other countries claiming possession of the Spratlys have had never sent anyone to Beijing to clarify some matters concerning Spratlys. China is in the position of strength if we deal with them bilaterally – we are economically and militarily weak and we have citizens in China on death rows. In addition, who can forget the gruesome death of Chinese held hostage in Luneta last year? Needless to say, China has a lot of “aces”. Instead of dealing with China bilaterally, Philippines may consider doing it multilaterally with ASEAN. Philippines should once and for all do all the necessary means to mobilize ASEAN to press China to upgrade the non-binding 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by Asean and China in Cambodia, the upgrading of this declaration would result to a legally binding agreement on avoiding confrontation and peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea.
Now this legally binding agreement is a complicated because of the presence and expressed interest of the United States in the South China Sea. China mentioned several times that the United States should not meddle with the regional issue and should not make it an international issue. China is willing to have a legally binding agreement if and only if United States is not involved in the process. However, when Philippine President Banigno Aquino III and other ASEAN leaders met with US President Barack Obama in New York last September, they called for an implementing rule of the 2002 Declaration and the forging of a US-included formal code of conduct in the South China Sea. A US-included and a China-less code of conduct would result to a South China Sea with American navy policing the high seas. And this is the last thing that China would like to see. A China-included and a US-less formal code of conduct is what China desires. Hence, for the sake of peace and security in Spratlys, the signing of an upgraded 2002 Declaration is of utmost importance.
As history would tell us over and over again, men’s words and agreements can easily be revoked and broken. Another dimension of policy choice #1 is for the Philippines to beef-up its military to safeguard its territorial integrity. And how can the economically-challenged Philippines do it? The Philippines can allocate more budget to its armed forces and ask for more military support from its long-time ally, the United States (I can now hear the marching sound and angry shouts of Filipino Leftists in Mendiola). Philippines and United States have an existing Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines agreed upon in 1951. US has been very active also in supplying defensive weapons to the Philippines and military exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The United States with its economy not on top shape might be very much willing to enter into “arms business” and partake in the “fortune” that might befall on them as they actively engaged in the affairs of South China Sea.
Policy Choice #2. Philippines may agree on a bilateral agreement with China’s proposition for a joint exploration by claimant countries of the oil and natural gas resources in the Spratlys. Quietly dropping Philippines’ claim over Spratlys, as the Philippines did with the Sabah, in favor of exploring and sharing the great wealth that lies beneath the South China Sea with China opens a window of great economic opportunities for the Philippines. Instead of spending huge amount of money for the defense of its legal and claimed territories, it might be practical for the Philippines to ally with China in sharing the bounty of Spratlys. Of course, with this bilateral moves comes a more China-aligned policy and we would be expecting a Chinese version of VFA and MDT (I wonder how would Filipino Leftists react, would they also shout and march in Mendiola?).
Policy Choice #3. This is the most ideal and I should say improbable for the time being. Philippines would neither be American-aligned nor Chinese-aligned. Philippines would build on its own its own strength the mechanism, ways, and means on having its troops and military hardware beefed-up to effectively assert and defend its legal and claimed territory. This policy choice would also made the Philippines find ways and means in pursuing on its own or on its lead the exploration and exploitation of untapped natural resources beneath the high seas. In this case, Philippines would do what the weak but united and nationalistic Vietnam did to France and United States in its history of struggle for independence and sovereignty. In this policy choice, Philippines would have to pray for heaven’s manna to fall to finance such gargantuan endeavor. Highly improbable indeed given the status quo.
What policy choice would the Philippines most likely to pursue? Last week the Armed Forces of the Philippines said it would use new US-made Hamilton-class patrol crafts to boost patrols in disputed South China Sea waters. Several weeks ago, the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III himself said that United States is the sole and strategic partner of the Philippines. Do I need to say more? Philippines appears to be choosing policy #1. Let’s wait and see then in the coming years what fortune or misfortune Spratlys would bring to my home country.
*Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) was co-founded by Former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos in 2001. Ramos also served as BFA’s first chairman.