Commentary South China Sea: Waters of Contention

Stopping China by engagement

Admiral Locklear being received by President Aquino.

IN Bangkok last week, the commander of the United States Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said the usual line that their Asian allies expect from visiting American officials: we will oppose China’s expansionism.

“We will oppose the change of status quo by force of anyone,” Locklear said referring to the situation in South China Sea where China is reported to be positioning in Ayungin Reef, just 25 miles away from Mischief Reef, 130 miles away from Palawan, that China occupied in 1994.

But just like other American officials, Locklear did not commit that the US will fight China if the latter gets embroiled in violent confrontation with any of the countries in this part of the world. That’s because, in truth, the US will not because it values relations with China.

Although the US would like to contain China’s power, it would not want make an enemy of the Asian behemoth. The cordial meeting between US President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at  the White House this week where maritime issues were not raised affirmed that  pragmatic strategy.That’s being wise. It goes without saying that it would also not want to be embroiled in a war between the Philippines and China.

Last year, a month after the standoff with China in Bajo de Masinloc (also known as Scarborough or Panatag Shoal) was broken, the cabinet agreed to send back the Bureau of Fisheries and Acquatic Resources ship because three Chinese ships remained in the area.

When the US Defense officials learned of the cabinet decision, they advised Philippines officials against it. They knew the danger of having ships of both countries in the disputed area. What happened in Balintang Channel last month where Philippine Coast Guards shot and killed a Taiwanese fisherman demonstrates the risks.

China policy is “We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” We would not dare imagine the scenario if Chinese ships were involved.

Locklear, the wire reports said, advised compromise in the South China Sea conflict. He said the US would not take sides and stressed the importance of a code of conduct that would govern activities in the South China Sea.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has approved the elements to be included in the COC. What is needed is for China to agree to sit down and begin the talks on the COC.

The Philippines has brought the issue China’s expansionism to the United Nations where it asked the Arbitral Court to declare as illegal China’s nine-dash-line map. The decision is expected in three to four years time.

Meanwhile, what can the Philippines do to stop China from moving into disputed islets in West Philippine Sea?

Given that the we cannot match China might, retired Ambassador Lauro Baja, Jr., who was the Philippines’ permanent representative to the UN, advised that the Philippine should not exclude the option of engaging China.

He said: “We must re-examine our position against bilateral approach to dialogue on West Philippine Sea issues, especially those are really bilateral in context and where other countries have no dog in the dogfight.

Baja said the Bajo the Masinloc is a classic bilateral case. Only the Philippines and China are involved unlike other islets in the Spratlys that are claimed also by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

We have seen it that lip service is the only support other countries would give the Philippines in a direct conflict with China. The Philippines should wise up and learn more mature ways in dealing with China.