Thursday, June 30, 2011



Originally Published at Newsbreak on June 29, 2011 

While the Philippines and the US were launching their naval exercises on June 28, 2011 in the waters of Sulu and Palawan, which are very close to the disputed Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea, an Australian-based think-tank, the Lowy Institute, warned of a growing risk of war in the East China and South China Seas.
In its report entitled Crisis and Confidence: Major Powers and Maritime Security in Indo-Pacific Asia authored by Rory Medcalf, Raoul Heinrichs and Justin Jones, the Lowy Institute asserts that China’s growing military and rising resource needs from the disputed waters of East China and South China Seas have developed into a “risk-taking behavior” of Beijing.
This behavior makes the country in friction not only with the claimants in the Spratlys, namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam but also with other major powers, particularly with the United States, Japan and India.
The report underscores, “China’s frictions with the United States, Japan and India are likely to persist and intensify. As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict.”
The report also exclaims, “The sea lanes of Indo-Pacific Asia are becoming more crowded, contested and vulnerable to armed strife. Naval and air forces are being strengthened amid shifting balances of economic and strategic weight. The changing deterrence and warfighting strategies of China, the United States and Japan involve expanded maritime patrolling and intrusive surveillance, bringing an uncertain mix of stabilising and destabilising effects.”
Coinciding with the release of this report is the press statement delivered a few days earlier by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei who says that  China has a  foreign policy  that “sticks to the path of peaceful development, upholds the defense policy that is defensive in nature and commits itself to actively developing friendship and cooperation with countries around the world, especially neighboring countries.”
However, China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, particularly the claimants in the Spratlys, strongly doubt the sincerity of Beijing to implement its policy of peaceful development considering the unprecedented rise of its military power that is believed to have already acquired a blue water capability.
China has scheduled sea trials of its first Aircraft Carrier on July 1.  It is expected that this aircraft carrier will cruise the waters near the Spratlys.
Uneasy peace
The growing visibility of Chinese ships patrolling the contested waters of the Spratlys has, in fact, made its neighbors  terribly uneasy.
This has prompted the US to reaffirm its commitment to defend its allies and partners in Asia amidst the risk of war in the region.
Apparently, the prospects of war and peace in the Spratlys largely depend now on the current and future behavior of China.
As the traditional “Middle Kingdom” in Asia, China is currently at the middle of various suspicions because of the many uncertainties associated with its military rise.
These uncertainties create security anxieties of its neighbors who will inevitably gang-up against China if China fails to assuage the fear of its neighbors.
Major power competitors like the US, Japan and India will take advantage of this situation to form a loose coalition of democratic states to check China’s growing might.
The fear of China will also encourage the Philippines and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to bandwagon with the US, Japan and India in order to hedge against the ascendant China.
There is no doubt that China has to do a lot of enormous explaining to  effectively convince its neighbors that its growing military power and  increasing visibility in the Spratlys will not pose risks of war.
Otherwise, China will create an international environment not conducive for its peaceful development.—Newsbreak

Saturday, June 25, 2011



Originally published at the Philippine Star on June 24, 2011

In an official meeting with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario on 23 June 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured that the US is committed to defend the Philippines amidst rising security tensions in the South China Sea, which the Philippine government now calls as West Philippine Sea.

To operationalize this commitment, Secretary Clinton stressed that the US would provide the Philippines affordable and reliable military equipment in order to enhance the external defense capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), particularly in defending its territories in West Philippines Sea. The AFP is now preparing a “shopping list” of military hardware it wants from the US.

So far, these words of Secretary Clinton are the most reassuring statements ever expressed by a top US official on the state of Philippines-American security relations.

Since 1951, the Philippines and the US have been military allies through the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). This placed the Philippines on the side of the US in the cold war against the former Soviet Union.

But their strong military relations became practically moribund with the termination in 1991 of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement (MBA). The termination of MBA coincided with end of the cold war between the US and the former Soviet Union.   When the US withdrew its last remaining troops from Clark and Subic in 1992, their military relations reached its lowest moment leading to the rapid deterioration not only of Philippines-American alliance but also of Philippine military capabilities.

China took advantage of this moment when it passed a law in 1992 declaring the whole of South China Sea as part of its internal waters. US reaction was ambiguous and underscored that it would remain neutral on the Spratly issue.

However, Chinese occupation of the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1995 prompted the US and the Philippines to fashion a new type of military relationship in order to respond to a China challenge in the Spratlys. In 1999, the Philippine Senate ratified the Philippines-American Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to justify the presence of American troops conducting joint and combined military exercises with the AFP in Philippine territories. The VFA is said to have provided operational substance to the MDT, which serves as the cornerstone of Philippines-American security alliance.

Despite the signing of the VFA, the US maintained its “strategic ambiguities” on the Spratly issue and declared its “hands off” position on the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

While the VFA renewed Philippines-American security relations, it failed to actually revive their military alliance. The China challenge in the Panganiban Reef at that time was not enough justification for US troops to become visibly involved in Philippine security.  

Things changed in 2001 when the US used the VFA to justify American presence in the Philippines as part of the global war on terrorism (GWOT).

The GWOT reinvigorated the once dormant Philippines-American alliance. The GWOT even led to the signing of the Mutual Logistic Support Agreement (MLSA) in 2002 and the establishment of US Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTFP) Headquarters in Zamboanga City thereafter. The threat of terrorism, therefore, encouraged the Philippines and the US to work closely together.

China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea is now being viewed in the Philippines and the US not only as a security challenge, but more of a military threat. This is the context on why Secretary Clinton strongly expressed US commitment to defend the Philippines amidst tensions in the Spratlys.

Secretary Clinton’s statement indicates the emerging cold war between the US and China in the Spratlys.
A cold war is a situation where at least two major powers are involved in a security tension and subdued military hostility short of an actual military battle. Conflicts are expressed through proxy wars, military coalitions, propaganda, espionage, and even trade competitions. This situation is now emerging between the US and China in the contested Spratly group of islands.

Indications of an emerging cold war in the Spratly started to manifest in March 2009 when five Chinese ships “harassed” USS Impeccable, a US Navy minesweeper. The Chinese government claimed that the US ship was intruding in China’s internal water, which was regarded by the US government as an international water where all ships can enjoy free or innocent passage.

The emerging cold war between the US and China on the Spratly issue is also manifested in the exchange of words between the two powers in various international forums like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Shangrila Dialogue, and various meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) involving the two powers.

The US exclaims that the US has a national security interest in the South China Sea. China, on the other hand, asserts that the South China Sea forms part of its core interests at par with Taiwan and Tibet. China, which says that it remains committed to the peaceful resolution of territorial conflicts, wants the US out of the South China Sea Disputes. But the US reiterates its willingness to get involved in the peaceful management of disputes in the Spratly while assuring its allies in the region of US military assistance.

The Philippines is now inevitably involved in an emerging cold war between the US and China in the Spratly. As an American ally, the Philippines is apparently on the side of the US in this emerging situation.

But will the Philippine government allows itself to get involved in a proxy war between the US and China when the cold war in the Spratly reaches its peak?

This situation is something that all sovereign states have to prevent to happen.

Saturday, June 11, 2011



Originally published at the Philippine Star on June 10, 2011

While commemorating the 36th anniversary of the establishment of Philippines-China Relations signed on 9 June 1975, China Ambassador to the Philippines, Liu Jianchao, exclaimed that the Philippines’ protests against China on the Reed Bank and Iroquois Reef-May Douglas Bank incidents were all based on “bad rumors”.

Referring particularly to the Iroquois Reef-May Douglas Bank incident, the Chinese Ambassador stressed, “It’s a bad rumor because we have no intention of occupying one of the islands. We clarified the reaction which was aimed at seismic survey that was done there so this is something that should not be played up because after all it’s just a survey not by military vessels but vessels for the survey.”

The ambassador has also reiterated the long-standing position of China that the South China Sea belongs to China and its “ownership” of the said water is “indisputable.” He even tells other claimants to the disputes, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, “to stop searching the possibility of exploiting resources in the area where China has claims.”  The ambassador also underscores that if the countries with claims in the South China want to explore and exploit any resources in the disputed water, “you can talk to China about the possibility of having a joint cooperation development and exploitation of natural resources.”

The Philippines, however, maintains its “firm stand” that the Reed Bank and the Iroquois Reef-May Douglas Bank belong to its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) where the country has all the exclusive rights to explore and exploit the natural resources of the area. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said that the Philippines was only protesting “incursions into Philippine territorial waters by Chinese vessels.” Despite the strong statement of the Chinese ambassador against the Philippines protests, Lacierda stated that the Philippines will continue its activities in its EEZ, especially the oil exploration activities in the Reed Bank.

These exchanges of strong words between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea Dispute indicate the seemingly irreconcilable difference between the two countries on the issue. Both countries are now engaged in a word war, which poses a great diplomatic challenge in Philippines-China Relations. If not carefully managed, this word war can deteriorate into a diplomatic crisis that both countries do not want to happen.

The word war between the Philippines and China on the South China Sea Dispute is happening at the time when both countries should be joyfully celebrating the 36th year of their bilateral relation, which in 2005 was just declared to have reached the “golden age of partnership”.

This year, however, sees the sudden deterioration of Philippines-China relation as a result of conflicting claims in the South China Sea. The word war between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea Dispute has created unnecessary ill-feelings on both sides that if not assuaged properly can make both countries at odd with each other.

Since 1975, when the Philippines and China normalized their diplomatic relations, their partnership has become comprehensive spanning cultural, economic, political and even military areas. This comprehensive partnership even led to the signing of the Joint Action Plan for Strategic Cooperation in 2009 as a living testament of their deepening friendship and growing partnership for mutual benefits.   The Philippines even celebrated the 35thanniversary of Philippines-China Relations in Nanning, China in 2010 on the occasion of 7th China-ASEAN Expo.

The year 2011, however, is one of the worst years in Philippines-China Relations after the Mischief Reef controversy in 1995 and the Scarborough Shoal incident in 1997.

It looks very impossible for China and the Philippines to give up their respective claims in the South China Sea because of the growing demand from both countries to access and exploit the valuable resources, particularly oil/gas and fish, in the disputed water. But if both governments will continue to exchange harsh words against each other on the issue, it will not only harm state-to-state relations, it will also affect people-to-people contacts.

If both countries are really serious in pursuing peaceful means to settle their differences, they have to mutually exercise self-restraint in publicly criticizing each other by exchanging harsh words so that government-level “misunderstanding” will not spill-over to the misunderstanding of their people.

Blog sites and networking sites are now filled with comments from citizens of their countries lambasting one another. If this trend continues, government-level differences can trigger racial outrage that will further  inflict harm on Philippines-China relations.

The Philippines and China have already made tremendous accomplishments in their bilateral relations over the past 36 years. The South China Sea Dispute shall not be the reason why both countries have to retrogress in their ties.

While there is no doubt that the Philippines and China have conflicting stand on the South China Sea Dispute, their commitment to settle their territorial disputes by peaceful means shall be strongly emphasized in public discourse. Rather than focus on their differences, both countries shall concentrate in discussing issues of mutual interests and make sure that issues of mutual interests will redound to their citizens. In this case, the positive aspects of Philippines-China relations can establish social ownership.

As an interim measure, the Philippines and China shall seriously start talking about joint development in the South China Sea. Rather than determining which countries have ownership or rights to the disputed territories in the South China Sea, the Philippines and China should open their channels of communication to candidly consider the idea of joint development so that when they celebrate the annual anniversary of their ties in the future, they will share common accomplishments rather than exchange harsh words.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011



Originally published at Newsbreak on June 7, 2011

To peacefully manage the complex territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS), Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. Del Rosario urgently calls for the promotion of a “rules-based regime” that can transform SCS “from an area of dispute to a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship, and Cooperation (ZoPFF/C).”
This concept of a “rules-based regime” aims to uphold the strict implementation of international law, which in the context of the SCS disputes, refers primarily to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Creation of this type of regime also necessitates the urgent adoption of a binding Code of Conduct (COC), which is considered to be the next logical step after the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
In other words, the proposal of Del Rosario all boils down to the need to uphold the rule of law , rather than the use of force, to peacefully settle the territorial disputes in the SCS.
While there is no doubt that the idea of a rule of law has become a maxim in any civilized society where “no one is above the law,” its meaning varies among nations with different political traditions.  There is no precise definition of a rule of law even in a mature democracy where conflicts are managed without the use of force.
The application of a rule of law is all the more problematic when applied in inter-state politics where there is the utter absence of a government that can enforce laws and peacefully manage disputes among sovereign states in a manner found in domestic politics.
In short, there is anarchy in international relations—a  grim reality also found in the SCS.
Anarchy in the SCS does not mean total chaos or sheer disorder marred by violence, although that can happen.  Anarchy is a mirror of a type of order in international politics where there is no central or “sovereign” authority above sovereign states.
Under international anarchy, the sovereign is the state, which is independent and autonomous pursuing its own selfish interests.
But how can we manage the SCS disputes in the condition of international anarchy?
The proposal of Del Rosario represents a school of thought in international relations that sovereign states can, in fact, cooperate in the condition of anarchy.  Through cooperation, sovereign states can prevent war among them despite their existing differences.  Cooperation promises peace dividends which sovereign states can benefit from.
Will it work?
Called a “Regime Theory in International Relations,” it posits that sovereign states can establish the habit cooperation by creating a regime, which Stephen Krasner (an international relations theorist) describes as “a set of explicit or implicit principles, norms, rules, and decision making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area.”  Regime creates a standard of behavior that facilitates inter-state cooperation. Regime guarantees states to cooperate and co-exist peacefully in the condition of anarchy.
Key to the application of a regime theory in peacefully managing the SCS dispute is the issue on whether the expectations of all relevant players in the conflict are in fact converging.  Disagreements of claimants on some important details of the proposed COC strongly indicate that there is still a great divergence rather than convergence of expectations among parties to the conflict.
While a regime theory provides a benign solution to international conflicts, which is found in the condition of anarchy, it is advanced more seriously by states with limited military means to advance their national interests.  States with greater military wherewithal to advance their national interests would hesitate to be bound by a “regime” if it would affect its advantageous position in the relative distribution of power in international politics.
Regime does not have independent power over sovereign states, particularly those considered as major powers. Powerful states are motivated to be part of the regime if it would serve their economic, political, and security interests. Major powers would opt out of the regime if it starts to limit their powers and alter their status in international politics.
In case of the SCS dispute, a rules-based regime will only be viable if it will not be used against a major power—China, the only major power among the claimants in the SCS. If a proposed “rules-based regime” in the SCS has the intention of “containing” China and “bind” China by the “rules of the weak,” China will enormously go against the creation of that regime.
But if that rules-based regime recognizes China’s peaceful rise as a major power and acknowledges China’s important role in maintaining peace and stability in the SCS without necessarily “constricting” its power ascendancy, China will in fact the major champion of that regime.
If truth be known, the issue of war and peace in the SCS largely depends on China’s current and future behavior. The promotion of a rules-based regime in the SCS must be presented in a way that it will not be misconstrued as “anti-China” so that the problem anarchy in the SCS will provide the prospects for peace, stability and prosperity for all.

Friday, June 3, 2011



Originally published at Newsbreak on June 2, 2011

While Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie was enjoying his “goodwill” visit to the Philippines on May 21-25 to “improve” Philippines-China relations, the Philippine military discovered in the same period some Chinese ships unloading construction materials near the unoccupied, but still Philippine controlled, Amy Douglas Bank.
Based on the report of the Philippine military, China has erected an undetermined number of posts, and placed a buoy near the breaker of the Amy Douglas Bank.
To date, the Chinese government has not yet verified the said incident. But it continues to claim sovereignty of all the islands, islets, reefs, shoals, banks and even rocks in the South China Sea.  The Philippine government asserts that Amy Douglas Bank falls within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EZZ).
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin expressed disappointment that the incident in the Amy Douglas Bank occurred at the time of the official visit of his Chinese counterpart. The visit aimed to repair Philippines-China bilateral ties that has been recently damaged by renewed security tension in the South China Sea.
In a press conference, Defense Secretary Gazmin lamented, “Somehow I’m really affected because we have shown them our hospitality and we were talking properly. We agreed that all problems could be resolved. And yet while we’re talking, something was afoot elsewhere.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs has already released an official statement expressing “its serious concerns over recent actions of the People’s Republic of China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea)”.  This is a landmark statement for having described that part of the sea as West Philippine Sea.  The concept of West Philippine Sea, however, has yet to receive international recognition.
The Amy Douglas Bank incident is just part of the renewed security tension in the South China Sea.  The tension started in 2008 when China declared the Vietnamese-claimed Sansha City as an integral part of the Hainan Province.  It was also during this year when the Yulin (Sanya) Submarine Base of China was discovered in Hainan Province.  Tensions escalated in March 2009 when Chinese ships allegedly harassed the USS Impeccable conducting surveillance activities in the Spratly.
Since then, China has deployed several patrol ships in the South China Sea to defend what it calls an integral part of its “internal waters.” This claim is based on the Nine-Dash Line Map that China submitted to the United Nations on May 7, 2009.
Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have already submitted to the UN their protest to the Chinese claim.
But with several Chinese ships patrolling the South China Sea on rotation basis, China has already developed its muscle to be more assertive in “reclaiming” its “lost territories.” With its growing blue water capability and increasing military power supported by sustained economic growth of at least 9 percent annually since 1989, China now has all the means to assert its foreign and security policy in the South China Sea.
For China, the South China Sea is part of its internal lake and an integral aspect of is “ancestoral property.” But China laments this property has been taken away from them at the time of its weakness.
Now that China has regained its strength as the traditional “Middle Kingdom” in Asia, it now has the wherewithal to be more decisive in its claim in the South China Sea.  Last year, the South China Sea was declared as part of China’s “core interests” at par with Taiwan and Tibet.
While there is no doubt that China is stronger now than before, its current behavior in the South China Sea is a litmus test of China’s self-proclaimed policy of “peaceful development.”
As an ascendant power, China is trying to convince the world that its rise to global power status will be peaceful and benign.  As a rising power, China is telling the whole world that it is a “status quo power,” benign and peaceful and satisfied with its current status.
But its growing assertive behavior in the South China Sea is giving the world a message that China is becoming more of a “revisionist power.” This concept states that major power aspires for more power as it grows stronger.
If China continues to display its growing assertive behavior, its neighbors will view it not as a strong sign of assertiveness but as an utter expression of aggressiveness. Thus, its claim for a benign status will put be in a very strong doubt.
The reported incident in the May Douglas Bank, if proven accurate, is not only an assault against the Philippines.  It is also an assault against the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China and ASEAN signed in 2002 a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).  The DOC urges claimants not only to manage their existing disputes peacefully but also to prevent future disputes by not occupying additional features in the contested water.
The delivery of construction materials near the May Douglas Bank by Chinese ships  at the same time when Chinese Defense Minister was visiting the Philippines has challenged the sincerity of China  as a reliable partner for “peace, freedom, friendship and cooperation” in the South China Sea.  The incident has created an impression that while China is talking “sweet” in its neighbors’ house, it is acting “bitter” at the backyard.
If China wants to correct this impression, it has to make its own people accountable for the Douglas Bank Incident as it was a clear violation of the DOC.  Otherwise, the Douglas Bank Incident can be a Mischief Reef in the making.  This is a scenario that can worsen the rising tension in the South China Sea, which can attract other major powers to become inevitably involved.