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Thursday, February 23, 2017
- Last year, the Philippines brought a complaint against China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal. It was a master stroke by the Philippine government.
The Chinese “were really unprepared for that and were really embarrassed by it,” one of Vietnam’s top experts on Chinese diplomacy told me during my recent visit to Hanoi to give a series of lectures on foreign policy and economic issues.
The move put China on the defensive, said another Vietnamese analyst, and was one of the factors that prompted Beijing last year to agree in principle to hold discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a Code of Conduct for the disputed body of water – known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea, in Vietnam as the East Sea, and in China as the South China Sea.
The budding cooperation between Vietnam and the Philippines is the latest development stemming from China’s aggressive territorial claims in the region.
In 2009, China put forward the so-called “Nine-Dash Line” map in which it claimed the whole of the South China Sea, leaving four other countries that border on the strategic body of water with nothing more than their 12-mile territorial seas.
In pursuit of Beijing’s goals, Chinese maritime surveillance ships have driven Filipino fisherfolk from Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In the most recent incident, the Chinese tried to disperse Filipino fishing boats approaching the shoal with water cannons.
Chinese government ships have also reportedly chased off Filipino boats trying to replenish a garrison on Ayungin Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
The Philippines and Vietnam are natural allies in their common struggle against China’s drive for hegemony in East Asia. Already partners in ASEAN, the two are likely to be driven closer together by Beijing’s increasingly brazen displays of power as it enforces its claim to some 80 percent of the South China Sea.
Both have also drawn closer to the United States, seeking to use Washington to balance China’s growing military presence in the region.
Vietnam has played the U.S. card more adroitly, however, relying on the Philippines to explicitly invite an expanded U.S. military presence on its soil and seas, something the Vietnamese would not themselves allow. But despite a common interest in containing China, both countries should avoid turning the conflict into a superpower conflict between the United States and China.
Figuring out Beijing’s Motives
The Vietnamese offered several schools of thought on China’s territorial claims. The first sees the Nine-Dash Line as delineating the maritime borders of China and not necessarily possession of the islands in the area.
The second interprets it as saying only that the islands and other terrestrial formations in the area belong to China, leaving the status of the surrounding waters ambiguous. A third opinion is that the map asserts that both the islands and surrounding waters belong to China.
A fourth perspective sees the Nine-Dash Line as an aggressive negotiating device.
According to a diplomat and academic expert who has first-hand experience negotiating with the Chinese, Beijing’s style of resolving territorial issues has the following steps: “First,” he said, “the two parties agree on the principles guiding negotiations. Second, both sides draw up their maps reflecting their respective territorial claims, with China pushing its territorial claims as far as possible.
“Third, they compare the maps to identify overlapping or disputed areas. Fourth, the parties negotiate to resolve the disputed areas. Fifth, if there is agreement, draw up a new map. Finally, they go to the United Nations to legalise the new map.”
Despite varying views on China’s intentions, however, the Vietnamese are one on two key points: 1) that the Nine-Dash Line claim is illegal, and 2) that owing to the number of parties and overlapping claims involved in the South China Sea dispute, only multilateral negotiations can set the basis for a lasting comprehensive solution.
Also, whatever may be their different readings of China’s motives for advancing its Nine-Dash Line claims, there seems to be a consensus among Vietnamese officials and experts that China’s strategic aim is to eventually assert its full control of the South China Sea.
In other words, Beijing’s aim is to legally transform the area into a domestic waterway governed by Chinese domestic laws.
Some of Beijing’s acts are explicit, such as the establishment of Sansha City as a domestic governing unit for the whole South China Sea and the recent passage of a fisheries law requiring non-Chinese vessels fishing in the area to obtain a license from the Chinese government.
Others are more ambiguous, such as Beijing’s views on the issue of freedom of navigation in the disputed area. Ambiguity serves their purpose at a time that they do not yet have the capability to match their power to their ambition.
“But there is no doubt that when they reach that point, of having the power to impose their ambition,” said one Vietnamese analyst, “they will subject the area to Chinese domestic law.”
The United States: From Enemy to Ally?
In an irony of history, the Vietnamese have welcomed Washington’s plans to increase the U.S. military footprint in the region to “balance” China. Once an enemy, Hanoi now has good security relations with the United States, whose navy Vietnam has invited to use the former Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for logistical and ship repair needs.
For the same reason, the Vietnamese approve of the U.S. military’s controversial build-up in the Philippines. I was told that as a long-time ally of the United States, it was the role of the Philippines to ask the United States to increase its military presence in the Western Pacific.
But inviting the United States to have a larger military presence is counterproductive if the aim is to resolve regional territorial disputes with China.
A larger U.S. presence would transform the regional context into a superpower conflict, thus marginalising the territorial question and the possibility for its resolution.
Moreover, inviting Washington to plant an even bigger military footprint in the Philippines would convert the country into a frontline state like Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the terrible consequences such a status entails – including the subordination of our economic development to the strategic-military priorities of a superpower.
Finally, a balance of power situation is unstable and prone to generate conflict, since although no one may want a war, the dynamics of conflict may run out of everyone’s control and lead to one. China’s aggressive territorial claims, the U.S. “Pivot to Asia,” and Japan’s opportunistic moves add up to a volatile brew.
Many observers note that the Asia-Pacific military-political situation is becoming like that of Europe at the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of a similarly fluid configuration of balance-of-power politics.
None of the key players in East Asia today may want war. But neither did any of the Great Powers on the eve of the First World War. The problem is that in a situation of fierce rivalry among powers that hate one another, an incident may trigger an uncontrollable chain of events that may result in a regional war, or worse.
Walden Bello is a representative of Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the Philippine House of Representatives. He was the author of the House resolution renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea. An earlier version of this commentary was published by Foreign Policy In Focus.