Advocating transparency on security issues through security sector transformation
Friday, June 3, 2011
A MISCHIEF REEF IN THE MAKING?
by ROMMEL C. BANLAOI
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.