Tuesday, September 21, 2010
A Philippines Perspective regarding current South China Sea disputes
We welcome the call of US President Barack Obama for a peaceful settlement of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. By claiming that a peaceful resolution of conflicting claims for the Spratlys and the Paracels was in America’s interest, Washington also bolsters the bargaining power of Asean against China and helps keep the balance of power in the Pacific.
President Obama is to meet the 10 heads of state of Asean in Washington, D.C., along with President Benigno Aquino 3rd later this week. When Aquino meets Obama, we hope the Philippine President will remind the US leader about his earlier commitment to support the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which has been signed by the White House but not yet ratified by the US Senate. In 2008 when he was campaigning, President Obama was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying: “I will work actively to ensure that the US ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention—an agreement supported by more than 150 countries [including the Philippines] that will protect our economic and security interests while providing an important international collaboration to protect the oceans and its resources.”
The convention is important to many countries like the Philippines, because it provides a legal framework for settling disputes that was historically settled through force. In other words, the signatories—big and small, mighty and defenseless—are on a level playing field. The UNCLOS, which was concluded in 1982, defines the rights and responsibilities in using the world’s oceans and establishing guidelines for the management of natural marine resources. The full protection of that convention, along with mechanisms for seeking redress, is vital to protecting our national interests.
The convention defines the boundaries of the Philippines, and there lies the problem. The Philippines claims the Kalayaan Island Group, which were “discovered” by the eccentric Filipino Admiral Tomas Cloma in 1947 and annexed by the late President Ferdinand Marcos in 1978. Today, Kalayaan is a municipality of Palawan and has more than 200 Filipino residents based on the 2000 census.
The Kalayaan Island Group, however, makes up part of the Spratlys, which are hundreds of reefs, islets, atolls, cays and bigger islands in the South China Sea, which is being claimed in whole by China. The Chinese even built structures in the area, including Mischief Reef, which is located well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone as provided in the UNCLOS.
At the heart of the disputes is the belief that the Spratlys are mineral-rich. But the conflicting claims have held back exploration. If the Philippines were to have a chance of tapping those potential riches, it will need the protection of international law—one that would have teeth given the support of the United States.
Asean must be united
We recognize, however, that the Philippines and other Asians cannot—and must not—rely on American protection alone. The US, of course, has its own interests to protect, and that much is clear from the statements of its officials.
Asean must be united in wanting a peaceful resolution to problems in the South China Sea, a difficult task given that many of its members also have competing claims over the Spratlys. Besides the Philippines, the Spratlys are also claimed in part by Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. When he meets the other Asean heads and President Obama, President Aquino will hopefully step in stride with our neighbors and resist the direction set by his predecessor, Mrs. Gloria Arroyo, who ditched Asean unity and signed the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking with China and Vietnam for oil and mineral explorations in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, under President Aquino, should stick it out with Asean, which has shown that it can stand up to China. Working together in the past, Asean persuaded the Mainland to drop its resistance to the “internationalization” of the South China Sea issue. On its own, the Philippines does not stand a chance against China. This is evident today, even in the way the Aquino government placates an irate Beijing over the bungled hostage crisis by giving it first crack on the full report of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee.
More importantly, we hope President Aquino gives equal weight to foreign policy as he does domestic concerns. Protecting our national interests, as the issues in the South China Sea show, requires thoughtful and deliberate policies, not to mention advanced diplomatic skills.
China is a friend of the Philippines, a top trading partner, a huge source of foreign direct investments, and a major tourist market. The world’s second-biggest economy, China is also a military and economic superpower that Manila will have to work with today and in the foreseeable future. We must, however, balance those things with a firm grasp of what is in our national interest. We must walk a tightrope—continuing and building on relations with Beijing yet standing firm to protect what’s ours. And to effectively do that, we need the strength of Asean, the protection of international law, and the backing of President Obama—and all other friends in the world—to keep the peace in this region. Manila Times