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A Budding Alliance: Vietnam and the Philippines Confront China

WASHINGTON, Mar 22 2014 (IPS) - 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.

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 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.

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  • v j

    In the recent scuttle butt leaking out from high up government officials
    between USA and the Philippines there exists plans that would entail the
    exchange of one rather large island in the central Philippines for a large arsenal
    of nuclear military weapons. Among the purposed weapons would be nuclear armed
    submarines, state of the art fighter jets, and long and mid range nuclear
    capable missiles.

    The plan is to primarily bring a balance of power to allies in the unstable
    area of the West Philippine Sea, while also establishing a major economic boost
    to the Philippines. With a large USA owned island section of the
    Philippines it would allow a new USA military base as well as major industrial
    development, employing thousands of Filipino people in jobs developing items now
    being manufactured in China. This would make a way for the USA to boycott China
    imports and replace those boycotted items to be imported from the Philippines at
    the same competitive prices we see now coming from China.

    To offset the high cost to USA taxpayers a major portion of the USA owned
    island will be able to be marketed to areas of public and commercial
    development, it would be much like the Islands of Hawaii as a USA owned tropical
    getaway. Look out China the Philippines big brother is moving in and putting a
    big bite on China’s economic trades. Code named “Big

  • lariokie

    “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.”
    History tells us these wars have less to do with what the “key players” want and more to do with what those who have always built and maintained great fortunes from war want. America is now the undisputed all-time grand champion of arms exports, with $86.5 billion in arms trade last year alone. As America has herself proven over and again from Korea to Afghanistan, “use ’em if you got ’em”. The temptation of mere military mortals is too great and the political “voices” the war profiteers’ perennial cheerleading is so loud that it generally has little to do with whether a country wants war or not.

  • lariokie

    If you are correct about this scenario, it sounds like we may indeed be in for another super power confrontation similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is hard to imagine China allowing a brazen act by the US like stationing nuclear weapons in such close proximity, especially given our obvious strategy of control over the Balkans, Middle East, Africa, and now the Ukrainian “side door” to Russia. The Chinese could be forgiven for thinking a move such as you have described was an attempt to project US power and empire to middle Asia. Could that possibly create the forge for a China-Russia defense pact? Wouldn’t that be an interesting (and very dangerous) gambit, especially with US presidential elections just around the corner and a new crop of wild jingoists in high political places?

  • johnchamp

    The writer can really speculate and write from hot air, something that he must had learned from the western way of creating news based on nonsense created by other writers. China on the other hand is very far behind when it comes to this shameful and disgusting behaviour. Today, tomorrow and forever the claimants will be the same, nothing will change. It was Philippines who started all this “quarrels” a few years ago. Of course I will be blasted as pro-China which actually I am not but from an independent point of view I see the stupidity of their pathetic and nuisance behaviour.

  • Tsinoy

    John champ.. sounds really american for a 50 cent commie troll.. why do you hate your chinese name so much?

  • Eddie spaghetti

    Very true…. the communist news service publishes nothing but the truth, always …..

  • des mond

    I don wan to be an idiot or look like an idiot to reply to a moronic question.

  • RogerRogerWhtsurVectorVictor?

    Waste of tax payer money.

  • Lightsp33d

    I think the Philippines should use the United States as a close ally against China’s trampling of Philippine National Interests in the West Philippine Sea but should do it in a way that does not expose the Philippines in the risks similar to that of a ‘frontline state’.

  • Lightsp33d

    But this design will expose a big chunk of the Philippine population to the risk of a nuclear strike. We also do not want that.

  • v j

    Currently in the news China is deploying submarines with nuclear missiles, this brings up the question for what purpose is China doing this? China has no known enemies, thus their efforts are for offence and or threat. China has recently falsely put claim to neighboring seas know to be rich in natural resources, namely oil. The Philippines is already in Chinas gun sights for attack if the Philippines refuses to give up their natural resources. Balancing of power is the only option plausible.

    In recent news Putin has made known that Russia is building military bases with nuke capabilities in Latin America. History proves that the only respected deterrent to big countries with bully attitudes is an arsenal of similar force to keep aggression from happening. The Philippine men bravely fought side by side for freedom in the Pacific island region losing more than a million brave Filipino heroes. It is with dignity and honor the USA come to aid in strengthen the Philippine people to show bully nations they will never live to take away their God given natural resources.

  • Lightsp33d

    We can join the USA-led alliance but our leadership must make sure that the Philippine population will not be endangered as a result of our becoming a frontline state in the Superpower war.

    That includes making sure that our AFP can credibly defend our interests without directly resorting to direct American intervention.

  • Dwight

    If this “supposed-to-be civilized” nation is not minding the possible repercussions or outcome of its bullying tactics and is even contemplating or gearing for another war in this day and age due to territorial disputes, then the scenario of being exposed to an attack by any desperate means (though a nuke strike would be unlikely) must be considered indeed. In this case, the next best step would be for our military and political think-tanks to plan several times ahead while being guided by real patriotism and nationalism. Besides, it seems that we cannot really avoid risking involvement in similar world conflicts in the near future. Man is greedy by nature and conquest has always been in his blood, as history has consistently shown. If worse comes to worst, a partnership with our much capable allies such as the US would be beneficial to both parties’ interests in the future would be the most viable option.

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