Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Aquino, China, Malaysia and the MILF


NEXT to President B. S. Aquino 3rd, two major threats confront the Republic. One is a possible armed confrontation with China; another is the possible dismemberment of the country by means of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, which seeks to create an Islamic enclave for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Which comes first is not material now. Each is a horror in itself, but Aquino’s personal handling of both issues makes them extremely dangerous. They could explode when least expected.

 

We need a saner, more sober and more competent executive to handle both threats. But unless preceded or accompanied by some radical political change, the 2016 elections cannot hope to provide such an executive.

 

Let us examine these two issues.

 

China might decide to wage war on us
The first threat: war with China. China is locked in maritime territorial dispute with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan over some islands, reefs and shoals in the South China/West Philippine Sea. To beef up its territorial claim, it has reclaimed at least seven land features, namely, Mischief Reef (Panganiban), Johnson South (Mabini), Gaven (Gavin), Cuarteron (Calderon), Kennan (Hughes), Eldad (Malvar), Fiery Cross (Kagitingan). The Philippines has protested these activities from the very beginning, to no avail.

In April 2012, a standoff ensued between the Philippine Navy and Chinese maritime vessels after a Philippine warship tried to arrest Chinese fishermen operating illegally around the Scarborough Shoal. The standoff ended in July with China seizing control of the shoal. Subsequent Philippine efforts to get the Asean foreign ministers to say something about it failed when Cambodia, the host of that year’s foreign ministerial conference, rejected any reference to the dispute in the customary communiqué. Because of this, no communiqué was issued for the first time in Asean’s 45 years.

In January 2013, the Philippines announced it was seeking international arbitration against China’s “nine-dash line” in the South China, under the terms of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. This was met with a very stern reaction from Beijing, which rejected the process and whatever results it might bring. A virtual word war in the press ensued, which replaced all semblance of diplomacy between Manila and Beijing. Both Aquino and his foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, began to talk like master sergeants, and replied with uniform bellicosity to every statement from China, even from unnamed spokesmen and newspaper commentators.

As China intensifies its island-building activities in the Spratlys, reports of US military air surveillance of these activities give us the feeling that the next explosion is just around the corner. Neither China nor the US could be unaware of its implications. We would be the first on the side of the US to get it, even though China may not want to nuke a country whose economy is dominated by Chinese-Filipinos, and whose richest dollar-billionaires on Forbes magazine’s annual listing are all ethnic Chinese. However, Aquino might see in an armed confrontation between the two giants a heaven-sent opportunity to liquidate all his critics, cancel all democratic and electoral debts and remain indefinitely in office. This is the biggest danger then—the enormous personal political profit from an insane military conflict for a deranged megalomaniac.

How did Philippine-Chinese relations come to such a pass? The Philippine claim to the Spratlys has been there since the 1950s, and it did not disturb a single reef or corral at all. In 1968, the first Philippine troops landed and established themselves on five of the islands. In 1975, a 1,800 meter runway was built on Pagasa, the biggest of the Philippine possessions, 215 nautical miles from Palawan, 450 from Manila. That same year the government granted a Philippine-Swedish consortium a contract to drill for oil on the Reed Bank. The exploration yielded gas and oil condensate. It drew diplomatic protests from Vietnam and China, but no bellicose or menacing exchanges between China and the Philippines.

In fact, in 1975, Manila and Beijing exchanged diplomatic relations in a distinctively festive spirit. I was part of the presidential entourage at the time, and it remains one of my most treasured moments. The official photos of that visit remained preserved in the Great Hall of the People’s gallery. On that occasion, the Chinese Communist Party was reported to have agreed to cut off its active support to the Communist Party of the Philippines, in exchange for the Philippines’ recognition of the One-China policy. President Ferdinand Marcos, who was an absolute teetotaler, ended toasting his hosts with the famous Chinese mao tai, after then Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, who was the high official in attendance, quoted the Chinese proverb saying, “Between two enemies one drop is too much, but between two friends no amount could ever be enough.”

In 1978, President Marcos issued a decree which declared the Kalayaan Island Group, its sea-bed, continental margin and air space, as belonging and subject to the sovereignty of the Philippines. It also formally designated the area as a separate district and municipality of the province of Palawan, to be known as Kalayaan and to be administered directly by the Secretary of National Defense or such civilian or military official as may be designated by the President.

In May 1988, 147 Filipino voters on Pagasa, having constituted themselves into a barangay, elected their first barangay captain in the person of Alawi, a Filipino Muslim. This completed the integration of Kalayaan into the Philippine archipelagic state. This had no adverse effect of Philippine-Chinese relations, which remained equable.

Malaysia map with parts of Philippines as its territory
The only unexpected development then came from Malaysia, when it announced its claim by issuing a map that showed its territory extending towards the southwestern tip of Palawan and enclosing parts of Kalayaan. To Manila’s protest, Malaysia said the map was based on a bilateral agreement defining its sea-bed boundary with Indonesia. In April 1980, Malaysia declared a 200-mile exclusive economic zone that overlaps areas claimed by the Philippines.

Compared to Vietnam, the Philippines had the most genial relationship with Beijing at the outset. In 1974, China ejected Vietnamese troops from the Paracels, forcing them to withdraw to Pugad Island. In 1984, a joint Soviet-Vietnamese amphibious exercise was held on the northern coast of Vietnam. China reacted by sending ten amphibious landing craft with some 2,000 marines on board to hold landing maneuvers on the Spratlys. Vietnam accused China of preparing to annex the islands and vowed to defend them. On March 4, 1988, the Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed. China sank two Vietnamese vessels, resulting in 77 presumed deaths on the Vietnamese side.

By 2013, China’s attitude towards Vietnam tended to soften. High-level visits were exchanged, and the two countries agreed to set up hotlines between their navies and agriculture ministries to manage fishing incidents. In May 2014, however, without any warning, China deployed its first indigenous deep-water drilling rig—the HYSY981—in waters around the Paracels, causing clashes between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels, in which a Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk.

This triggered a large standoff at sea involving dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese law enforcement vessels. This in turn fueled mammoth anti-China protests all over Vietnam, culminating in riots in mid-May. China was forced to withdraw the rig in July, and to resume its charm offensive. This has remained since. By contrast, relations with the Philippines have remained frosty, despite hopes that Aquino would continue the exemplary relations that flourished during Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s term. Things soured early after eight Hong Kong tourists were killed in a bus hijacking incident in Manila, and Aquino refused to apologize for the tragedy.

Although China has not been able to justify its island-building activities in the Spratlys, it has been able to raise a lot of noise against the US military air surveillance of its reclamation activities. It has thus been able to show that its real problem in the South China Sea is not the Philippines or any of the claimants to the Spratlys, but primarily the US, which continues to assert its position as the first power in the Asia Pacific. China wants to reverse this—or at least ensure its own place as the second global power in the region, without having to fight for it.

The competition is between two giants, and Aquino has managed to insert himself in it. To Washington’s discomfort, he has insisted on pasting his government crudely at the tail of the American kite, even when not needed. Where his senator-grand uncle (Lorenzo Sumulong) once caused Nikita Khrushchev to bang his shoe on his desk at the UN Security Council in response to an unnecessary attack on the Soviets, PNoy has tried to call China’s attention to himself in the hope of pleasing the US. China tried to ignore him in the beginning, but he will not be ignored, at the cost of our Republic.

Bangsamoro Basic Law and Philippine balkanization
The second threat is the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law and the eventual balkanization of the Republic. I have discussed this extensively in this space, and everybody else is talking about it. Only Aquino cannot seem to see the danger it poses to the State. We are in deep shit with China because the Asian giant has chosen to claim parity with the US, and because Aquino insists on pasting his government at the tail of the American kite, even when there is no need for it. If Aquino cannot seem to see it, the less likely is he to see that we are on the verge of being balkanized because insisted of standing for what is right, he has chosen to kneel before Malaysia which robbed us of Sabah when it was just a pile of mud, wild beast and forest, and would like to make the crime permanent now that Sabah has become an island of the greatest wealth. by FRANCISCO S. TATAD

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