Sunday April 15, 2012
From the frying pan into the fire
Behind The Headlines
By Bunn Nagara
This year’s Asean summit in Phnom Penh was not altogether rehearsed, although it looked familiar enough.
WITHIN days of Asean’s 20th summit closing in Phnom Penh, a testy naval incident erupted in the South China Sea between an Asean member and a major Asean dialogue partner.
The confrontation between Philippine and Chinese naval vessels in the disputed Scarborough Shoal area was, given the mood of the summit just before, a consequence of heightened adrenaline-testosterone levels with egos to match.
For decades, Asean and China effectively shelved the tenuous issue of conflicting maritime claims to concentrate on more substantive issues of common interest and concern. Previous Asean summits skirted it, as the consensus was that the interminable matter was never going to be resolved by a single conference session, much less a heated one.
There was never a pressing urgency to appraise the issue at any summit, including this one. And so it remained dormant without ever becoming extinct.
The lack of any immediate urgency in the issue, added to the very complexity of the rivalling claims and counter-claims, helped place the matter on the back-burner. The Spratly Islands group, for example, involves six claimant parties – four in Asean, China and Taiwan.
Since several Asean countries have rival claims among themselves, it had always been difficult to reach a common Asean position even in disputes with third parties such as China or Taiwan.
For Beijing for some two decades now, there had been a greater commonality and convergence of interests between itself and Taipei than there ever was among the Asean claimants. This was a tactical set point advantage for China-Taiwan that grated on Asean whenever it deigned to consider it.
This latest summit was supposed to see Asean members and China review the drafting of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes. But the Philippines, with fellow claimant Vietnam as co-driver, made an unscheduled pit stop in arguing that Asean must first form a common position on the issues before including China in discussions.
By moving the dispute to the foreground of the summit agenda, Manila was basically repeating its action at the preceding summit in November last year in Bali. It was not something calculated to impress fellow Asean members or any Asean dialogue partner.
Such overt political plays are seen as compromising delicate diplomatic work. It therefore did not win an Asean consensus, nor did it gain endorsement from the US as Manila’s ally.
It particularly miffed summit host Cambodia, since Phnom Penh had lately been building better relations with China. More specifically, both Cambodia and China had been looking forward to improved relations all-round, including in the military sector.
Thus the seeming anomaly of Asean’s newest government and youngest leader taking on one of its oldest and most intractable issues, was matched only by the apparent paradox of arguably the region’s weakest naval force positioning itself vis-a-vis a regional superpower with five millennia of statecraft.
The consequences of such an action in such circumstances should not surprise anyone. Nor should the nature of the consequences themselves.
For Manila, one of its naval reconnaissance aircraft last Sunday spotted eight Chinese fishing boats within the disputed Scarborough (Panatag, or Huangyan Island) Shoal area of the South China Sea. Summit delegates who had then just returned home must have felt it was an incident just waiting to happen.
Even the naming of the sea, and not just of the islands, is in dispute: Manila calls that part of the South China Sea the “West Philippine Sea”. President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino had previously proposed to Asean members that the entire South China Sea be renamed, but found no takers.
Three days after the Philippine naval surveillance plane found the Chinese boats in the area, China discovered the Philippines’ biggest warship there. Philippine authorities then complained that two Chinese surveillance vessels were obstructing their efforts to arrest the Chinese fishermen on charges of illegal fishing.
Philippine naval officers had boarded the Chinese boats and inspected their equipment and catch. The Chinese surveillance vessels promptly placed themselves between the warship and the fishing boats.
Mutual warnings were issued and temperatures soared. It did not help matters that the hulking Philippine warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, had only recently been acquired from the US.
China ordered the Philippine warship to leave the area immediately. The Philippines in turn demanded that it was “prepared to secure” its sovereignty if challenged, leaving vague exactly what steps it would take.
Both countries claim sovereignty over the area as well as justification for doing so. One of the region’s most intractable disputes suddenly became even more intractable, if that was ever possible.
The Philippines bases its claim on legal provisions, with reference to the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone in which Scarborough Shoal falls. China bases its claim on established historical claims with reference to maps.
The following day (Thursday), the Philippines sent another ship to the area. Philippine authorities said this was a Coast Guard vessel meant to replace the naval warship to help cool down the situation.
Manila continued to insist that there should be no violent incident over the dispute. Its Foreign Ministry was said to have been in constant contact with the Chinese Embassy in Manila.
Both China and the Philippines are signatories to UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), which provides for Exclusive Economic Zones for each country. A layman’s look at the map would also show Scarborough Shoal as being much closer to the main Philippine island of Luzon than to Hainan in China or even Kaohsiung in Taiwan.
One tactical deficit for China would seem to be its current phase of leadership transition, making it appear preoccupied domestically or otherwise inhibited abroad. It is also tempting to see another possible set point hindering aggressive Chinese tactics in its opening-up process, as it strives for better relations in the region and the world.
However, it would be too simplistic and hazardous to take these issues as givens. Beijing’s efforts to secure political stability and appease nationalist sentiment at home could instead turn the tables on such expectations and produce an even more combative stance over disputed territory.
Nor would greater democratisation in China help resolve matters more amicably. A political system that becomes more beholden to public opinion and populist urgings can, with an increasingly nationalist population, become more pugnacious abroad.
Meanwhile, even as the Philippines insists on creating a more unified Asean position in regard to China, its maverick attempt to upset the Asean summit applecart testifies to the opposite. Some abiding realities still prevail: disputes need to be handled and resolved through peaceful negotiations, and these would not be helped by souring the atmosphere.
Chinese analysts interpret Manila’s posturing as grandstanding for a domestic audience, as diversion from a troubled economy. Some of that is also said to apply to Vietnam.
As host, Cambodia could have ended the Philippine attempt to revise the summit agenda right there and then. It is a measure of Phnom Penh’s Asean spirit that exceeded even that of an original member that it did not.