Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Spratlys: Year of living dangerously

HOW did things heat up so fast in the Spratlys between China and the Philippines?

A year ago, relations were largely trouble-free, with the 2007-08 NBN-ZTE controversy being the only sticking point in recent years. After Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago apologized for her intemperate remark about the Chinese inventing corruption, Beijing put aside the issue as part of our fiery democratic politics, and moved on.

Now, military vessels and aircraft from China and the Philippines have stepped up sorties to disputed areas. Both countries have reiterated their territorial claims and warned against violations and incursions. This year the Philippines has alleged at least seven incidents, which China has dismissed as unfounded rumors, and filed diplomatic protests over three of them.

What are the forces driving the intensifying frictions, and how can rival claimants and other interested powers manage the situation and steer it away from conflict? For the Philippines, in particular, are the South China Sea confrontations likely to drive the country closer to the United States? And if we do run to Washington, will it stand up to Beijing in defense of our territorial claims?

Thankfully, that scenario isn’t likely for now: no hostilities are expected anytime soon between China and the Philippines. There are also conciliatory statements from both sides, including President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s call for dialogue and the joint statement of Chinese and Philippine defense chiefs calling for restraint.

Still, top Philippine officials are treating the tensions as a threat to national security and regional peace, and have said so in the Asean Regional Forum in Singapore on June 3 to 5. Hanoi also criticized Beijing’s moves. In fact, Sino-Vietnamese frictions and incidents erupted as early as 2009, when Hanoi protested Beijing’s creation of local bodies governing the disputed Paracel Islands.

Last week China accused both Vietnam and the Philippines of violating its sovereignty, protesting oil-seeking marine seismic surveys authorized by both countries in their claimed exclusive economic zones (EEZs). In contrast to Manila’s low-key response, however, Hanoi announced it would conduct live-fire naval maneuvers this week.

Perhaps even more worrisome to the Chinese, last August, Vietnam and the U.S. raised the level of officials conducting meetings on defense matters.

The Philippines also looks set to play the US card. Armed Forces Chief
Gen. Eduardo Oban plans to raise the South China Sea in his talks with US Pacific Command in Hawaii in August. Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte admitted she had yet to read the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty, but she was confident America would come to the country’s aid if there is war.

The MDT provides that any attack on the territory or armed forces of the Philippines or the United States in the Pacific shall prompt the other country to “act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” That means the American or Philippine President and Commander-in-Chief shall decide whether to order his nation’s forces to assist the attacked country. Furthermore, the Congress in the assisting country shall consider if it would declare war against the attacking power.

Will America go to war with Asia’s most powerful armed forces, with nukes targeting the continental United States, to help assert the Philippine claim over tiny islets and surrounding waters in the ‘West Philippine Sea,’ as the government calls the area? The Japanese have a similar question regarding their own MDT with America: Will the US risk Los Angeles to retaliate against an attack on Tokyo?

In the current tensions so far, Washington has joined the chorus of governments urging peaceful means of resolving differences. Last Saturday, an American Embassy spokesperson said: “The US does not take sides in regional territorial disputes.”
At the same time, Washington has also consistently called for unfettered navigation in the South China Sea. In addition, over the past year, the US has been pushing for a “regional architecture” of institutions to deal with international concerns and discord (see January 31, February 2 and four columns).

Will Uncle Sam put its military where its mouth is, at the risk of angering Beijing?

In the next part of this column, we look at the Sino-American balance of power and money—and how that may limit Washington’s clout in the South China Sea.

The article will conclude on Wednesday.

By Ricardo Saludo head of the Center for Strategy, Enterprise & Intelligence which provides analytic research on national, business and global issues.

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