Monday, May 26, 2014

The Philippines should be more aggressive in the Spratlys

The Observers 

As China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea, the Philippines continues to feel the effects of being shut out of its own exclusive economic zone. Although the Philippines have made some moves to assert its claim on the area, these moves are not enough. The problem with the Philippine approach to the problem is that it continously miscontrues the framework of the dispute.

China is not interested in a legal solution the issue. It is only interested in grabbing what it can and having the world concede to fait accompli. This means that although the Philippines can continue scoring diplomatic brownie points for its case filed with the International Tribunal on the Laws of the Seas (ITLOS), even a favorable ruling would not allow its fishermen to the return to their traditional fishing grounds.

The Chinese modus operandi. At the same time, while China's leadership may be interested in scoring brownie points with its populace by showing how it can effortlessly bully its neighbors, it is also not interested into being dragged into a full-blown war - at least not until the odds have been completely stacked in its favor and there is no choice for the other side but to concede defeat.

This means that China will be aggressive - but only up to a point. And while China may seem to be very aggressive now compared to before, it can be argued that China can act aggressively now because its patience in securing key bases in the Spratlys in the previous decades has paid off. This only means their calculated aggression can only increase as they secure more concessions, leading to a self-perpetuating loop of aggression getting more islands that would beget more aggression.

What has happened so far. The story of the Philippine claims in the South China Sea is one of continous loass. In 1975, the South Vietnamese, notwithstanding Philippine assistance in their war against North Vietnam, grabbed Southwest Cay by luring stationed Filipino soldiers away from it.

Actually Vietnamese claim to some islands and shoals in Spratly can be settled amicably by Vietnmam and the Philippines since some of the areas in Spratly Group is nearly equidistant between Vietnam and the Philippines. However China is too far from Spratly / Kalayaan Islands Group, China's claim in Spratly is a Historical fiction.

In 1994, the Chinese took advantage of a lull in Philippine Navy patrols by occupying Mischief Reef and building what it dubbed to be "fishermen shelters."

In 2012, China violated an agreement ending the standoff and kept vessels in Scarborough Shoal, leading to the occupation by the Chinese.

In every single one of those incidents, the Philippines meekly turned the other cheek and issued nothing but protests. External factors are often city - in the 1975 Southwest Cay incident, then President Marcos preferred not to raise a fuss as the Philippines was an ally of South Vietnam, nevermind that South Vietnam betrayed the alliance in the first place.

In 1994, then President Ramos decided not to engage, citing the Johnson South Reef skirmish in 1988, when the Chinese killed Vietnamese sailors and soldiers.

In 2012, the Philippines did not return its ships to Scarborough after it became clear the Chinese have reneged on the agreement.

There is a bright spot in this sordid history, In 1998, after the Chinese upgraded their structure on Mischief Reef and started placing markers in nearby feature, then President Estrada massed jets in Palawan and intensified patrols in the area. The Philippine Air Force and Phjilippine Navy regularly bombed markers left by the Chinese, without the Chinese making any comments.

In addition, the Chinese did not make much of a certain naval officer named Antonio Trillanes IV ramming a Chinese fishing vessel, although then Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon did have to raise funds from private individuals to compensate the fisherman for the loss of the boat. And the Chinese did not further expand their presence in the Spratlys.

Implications for the dispute. The actions of past Philippine presidents have shown an alarming trend - the Philippines' exclusive adherence to peaceful solutions have only continued to lose shoals for the Philippines. While this post does not argue for war, it does argue that options should never be taken off the table. The Philippines continues to deal in good faith, and should continue to do so. "But it should also be prepared to act more boldly.

The experience of Mr. Estrada shows that the actual correlation of forces is less important than the show of intent to resort to violence if need be. There is a reason for this. As with all governments, it is safe to assume that Chinese policymakers are divided between hawks and dove. Continued passivity in the face of Chinese aggression only empowers hawks more, as aggressive actions bear fruit for them.

A more active and aggressive approach from the Philippines would only serve to remind both hawks and doves of the political costs of continued expansion. The only way to resolve the matter peacefully is to convinc even hawks that only a peaceful solution is viable. To do that, the Philippines must demonstrate what it has not demonstrated so far - it is willing to risk an armed confrontation.

What should be done. Vietnam despite its limited resources and the Chinese threat, has continued to assertively proclaim its stance. Its ships continue to shadow the Chines oil rig, and has maintained the standoff. Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam has been the target of violent attacks by China, including a full-scale invasion in 1979, yet it continues to be bold even if it stands alone against its giant neighbor.

The Philippines protected by the need of the United States to maintain the credibility of its pivot to Asia, can do better. It must reassert its claims in the strongest possible way, matching Chinese provocations and ensuring that its fishermen can continue to claim the maritime riches of its exlusive economic zone.

Some possible measures are:
  *   Resuming the standoff at Scarborough (Panatag Shoal)
  *   Sending Filipino fishermen to their traditional fishing grounds, backed up by the Philippine 
       Coast Guard.
  *   Stranding more ships in features that surround those occupied by the Chinese. This include  
       replacing the BRP Sierra Madre with a less-dilapidated ship, preferably one with cannon that
  *   With the assent of ASEAN and other parties to the 2002 Code of Conduct, expansion and upgrading of all structures already present in the South China Sea to match Chinese efforts.

The end-game scenario: Ultimately, this measure is a gamble. A gamble that China will not react violently and simply take what it wants, which the Philippines is powerless to prevent. But in the current scenario, the Philippines will lose these features anyway, so why not do something about it?
Even if the worst happens, and China reacts violently and the US does not protect the Philippines, at the very least the Philippines would have established its claim in the most emphatic way possible, legitimizing any future efforts at reclaiming these features./

From : The Observers

Related postings:

Historical fiction: China's South China Sea Claim

YouTube Video

Spratly Islands Reef Madness

U.S. China Tensions at West Philippine Sea

China Get Out of Ayungin Shoal

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