Manila firm vs China in sea dispute

Jan 6, 2013- A pocalyptic prognosis of war breaking out in the South China Sea had never been more strident in the past few weeks, fueled by China’s “provocative” moves, which anger and worry its neighbors, especially the Philippines, the country with the weakest military in the region.

Since it seized Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) in 1994-1995 and occupied Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) in April of 2012, China has neither withdrawn an inch from contested territories nor apologized for its behavior.

Despite continued protests from Manila, Beijing has instead ramped up its claims, its rhetoric turning more confrontational.

But when the Philippines hosted a summit and hammered a code of conduct in 2002, providing for diplomatic means to settle ownership issues in the South China Sea, China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) signed the historic document.

And when the Philippines proceeded with developing the Camago-Malampaya fields estimated to contain 2.3 trillion to 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural-gas reserves, Beijing did not object

But in 2009, China unilaterally declared the “nine-dash line” territorial claim over all of the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea to Manila). Included in its map consisting nine dashes was the Recto Bank (Reed Bank) where a joint exploration, led by the Philippines Forum Energy Plc., was going on.

When the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), in November 2012, protested Beijing’s decision to print on its new e-passport the image of the controversial nine-dash line, and Philippine Immigration officials stamped the China passports bearing this map on a separate piece of paper, China responded by announcing that it will invest more than 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) to build infrastructure on disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The Guangzhou-based 21st Century Herald reported that China would build an airport, piers and other important infrastructure on islands administered by Sansha, a city under Hainan’s jurisdiction that was created in July after approval by the State Council in June.

Then Beijing announced that Hainan police would board and search ships that illegally enter what China considers its territories in the South China Sea. That means that its police are free to board, inspect, detain, confiscate, immobilize and expel foreign vessels deemed to be breaking the law off the southern island of Hainan province.

The new rules take effect this January, as reported by the official China Daily.

DFA Spokesman Raul Hernandez said that Beijing’s move to deploy the Haixun 21, an ocean-going patrol vessel equipped with a helipad in the contested waters, is contrary to China’s obligation under international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

“The Philippines strongly objects to the Chinese patrol of Philippine maritime domain in the West Philippine Sea,” Hernandez added.

After a week, the DFA, for the second time, sought clarification from Beijing on the coverage of its controversial board-and-seize rule for foreign vessels.

Despite these attempts from the department, China has not responded.

Non-claimant countries such as the United States, India and the European Union expressed concern on the controversial rule in view of its potential impact on freedom of navigation, the South China Sea being a major shipping lane for global commerce.

Interviewed by the New York Times, Wu Shicun, the director general of the foreign affairs office of Hainan, said that Chinese ships would be allowed to search and repel foreign ships only if they were engaged in illegal activities, and only if the ships were within the 12-nautical-mile zone surrounding islands that Beijing claims.

What is worrying neighboring countries outside the region, according to Wu, is China’s formidable growth, seeing it as possibility of his country taking the islands by force.

In Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Auslin’s article asks: “Will China go to war in January 2013?

Austin posed this question after noting that four days after China showed the world its first launch of a fighter jet from its sole aircraft carrier, Beijing upgraded a small naval outpost to become a full-fledged military garrison covering the South China Sea.

“Yet, freedom of navigation has always been seen as the one red line with China’s growing military strength,” he said.

According to him, if Beijing was confident enough that the rest of the world would not stand up to its step-by-step assertion of power in Asia, then that belief may well be put to the test.

He said that Washington pundits have latched on to the idea of “security in the global commons” for several years now, “mainly in response to fears that China was becoming strong enough to shift the balance of power in Asia’s waters in its favor.”

But, according to David Arase, professor of politics at Pomona College and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center at Nanjing University, “The problem is that both sides are nearing red lines that have been drawn, so the margin for error is narrowing.”

While aggressively staking out major portions of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, Beijing has said that it will only negotiate with countries individually, a position that gives China obvious advantages in dealing with smaller nations.

“A minor military clash in the South China Sea is, rather worryingly, a distinct and growing possibility,” according to Ian Storey from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

James Holmes of the US Naval War College said that it admirablr how China has been able to get its way in spreading it claims of sovereignty without becoming a bully.

A far greater danger was seen by another expert.

“If [China] continues on its current path, it would seem that it is willing to militarize the whole South China Sea issue,” said Dean Cheng, a China military and foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation.

Cheng offered another possibility, that Beijing’s current hardline policies might be due to the power shift.

“Once Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, et. al., have secured their position in 2013-2014,” he said, “they [could] focus on domestic issues and assume a less hardline position.”

In that case, Cheng said it is possible the Chinese will become more conciliatory.

(Recto Mercene)