Time for ASEAN to stand together

Posted on August 2, 2012


SANSHA City is China’s newest municipality. Extending over two square kilometres and with 613 residents, Sansha City has its own mayor, sea and airport, supermarket, as well as a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison.

Established on the Yongxing or “Woody” Island in the Paracel Islands of the South China Sea, the municipality represents a bold assertion of Chinese control.

Sadly in the face of such brute determination, Asean has merely whimpered.

Indeed, earlier this month at the normally-staid Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, the grouping revealed its ineffectiveness and lack of unity in the face of high-level lobbying from Chinese and American officials when the association failed to produce a joint communique at the conclusion of the meeting.

In short, we are in danger of becoming passive participants in the new “Great Game” – the geopolitical face-off between China and the United States.

Unsurprisingly, the main point of contention was the South China Sea, with its overlapping territorial claims, historical grudges and energy politics all jumbled up.

China claims most of the South China Sea as its own.

Unfortunately, China’s territorial pretensions clash with separate claims by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The contest is heightened because of two factors – the importance of the trading routes and the vast natural resources under the sea itself – estimated to be as much as 213 billion barrels of oil and two quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas.

China, unsurprisingly, has always been quick to assert its rights.

It clashed with Vietnam in 1974 over the Paracel Islands and came dangerously close to repeating the experience with the Philippines earlier this year when their navies engaged in a tense stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal.

A more Asia-focused United States has weighed in to support its former Philippine colony.

Troop deployments in Australia and improved relations with Myanmar and Vietnam have created a potentially explosive mix.

Meanwhile, Asean is little more than the proverbial (and increasingly scared) mousedeer caught between two feuding elephants.

In many ways, though, Asean’s indecisiveness is perhaps unsurprising.

It’s further proof that there’s little holding us together – besides the overly confident boosterism of the business community seeking to establish a unified market of over 600 million consumers.

For decades, we’ve paid lip-service to the grouping whilst pulling our separate ways.

Now, when we really need to fend off Great Power interference, we’re confronted by our lack of cohesiveness and disunity.

In short, all the golf and durian diplomacy has floundered and we’re stuck in a veritable “bunker”.

On the one hand, Cambodia’s refusal to endorse a joint communiqué at the meeting reflected its near-total economic reliance on China.

According to news reports, the Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong’s manner didn’t help matters either.

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the Philippines have been forced to balance their historical antipathy towards China with the reality of the Middle Kingdom’s proximity and sheer might.

Indonesia (mindful of its own size) appears to view the deadlock as an opportunity to demonstrate its regional leadership credentials.

As a consequence, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono directed his Foreign Minister, Marty Natelgawa to tour Asean in search of a fresh consensus on the issue.

For Malaysia and Singapore, the South China Sea impasse requires extreme delicacy.

As multiracial trading nations, both must assert their sovereignty and Asean credentials without alienating China.

Still, Asean must deal with contemporary realities.

Whilst we’ve been a diplomatic backwater for decades, the economically resilient grouping is no longer under the radar screen.

As one of the few economically robust regions, we’re now front and centre – besides which, with China on the rise, we’re geopolitically important.

This is all very dramatic and fun to read about but in reality it’s a painful headache as China and the United States stalk one another warily.

Let’s face it: the “Asian Century” is going to be fraught with danger and insecurity and I haven’t even begun to discuss the increasingly erratic and dysfunctional Chinese foreign policy and military apparatus.

The core issue is – do we “hang” together or go our separate ways?

We in Asean need to resolve this fundamental challenge.

Do we promote and implement “regional integration” as well as the “Asean community” or do we cut deals with China one-on-one?

The South China Sea is crunch time for Asean, and Malaysia.

We can either continue dithering and be reduced to pawns on a chessboard, or band together to show the world that we intend to live up to our geopolitical promise as well.

The choice is ours – but I guess it’ll have to wait until after the General Election. Sigh…


Which option will the bullied take?

China has been bullying the Philippines over their dispute on some islets and reefs in the West Philippine Sea for decades now, and it is obvious the country’s leaders have not figured out how to stop the bullying. The Chinese have in the past few weeks intensified its bullying, and it seems our leaders are hoping strong words would scare them away, or worse, they are hoping the country would outgrow the bullying just as a scared kid would. And lick the wounds later.

Unfortunately, what’s at stake here is not just wounded pride but the very future and security of the country. The disputed islands are less than 200 miles away from the country’s shores and having a hostile and reckless next-door neighbor would definitely pose a very serious threat to the Philippines’ security.

By allowing the Chinese to occupy the islets and reefs that are “rightfully ours,” as President Aquino described them in his State-of-the-Nation Address, the country is virtually surrendering its sovereignty, thereby slowly losing its rights over vast oil and gas deposits and the rich fishing grounds in the area. Once the Chinese have succeeded in their evil desires in the West Philippine Sea, what’s to stop them from claiming and taking Palawan, too, or perhaps the entire Philippines?

There is no doubt that the Chinese are ready to use force to push their invalid claim over the disputed islands, because there is no other way they can legally occupy them. The Chinese know they cannot win a case before an international court because those islands are within the country’s 200-mile economic zone and well within the Philippines’ jurisdiction under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. That’s why they refuse to bring the case for arbitration before any international body.

The Chinese used force twice to settle disputes with former ally Vietnam over the Paracel Islands, killing scores of Vietnamese soldiers in the process. In 1974, Chinese troops killed 74 Vietnamese military personnel during an armed conflict that resulted in China occupying the Paracels. In 1988, the Chinese gained control of the Johnson Reef in the Spratlys Islands Group after a naval battle that resulted in the death of 70 Vietnamese soldiers. At least the Vietnamese can claim with pride that they stood up to a bully.

In 1995, China built structures in the Mischief Reef, which is well within the Philippines’ 200-mile economic zone, but apparently the country’s leaders let it go. There was peace and quiet for some time until March 2011 when Chinese vessels harassed a Philippine oil exploration ship in the Reed Bank, which was well within Philippine territorial waters. The Philippines also protested the firing of warning shots at Filipino fishermen and the laying of buoys by the Chinese in Philippine-claimed islets.

But the Chinese ignored the protests and in April this year, sent frigates to stop a Philippine Coast Guard vessel from arresting Chinese poachers and seizing their illegal catch near the Scarborough Shoal. Since then, the Chinese have repeatedly provoked the Philippines by sending Chinese battleships and providing naval escorts to fleets of Chinese fishermen illegally hauling protected corals and sea turtles.

These provocations were capped with a declaration by the Chinese that it is claiming a small island in the Kalayaan Group, renaming it into Sansha City, and that it would build a military garrison on the island. The intent was, of course, to establish physical and military presence in the disputed territories to further boost its claim.

Amid all these provocations, all that the Philippine leaders could do was lodge protests that are blatantly ignored by the Chinese and unheeded by the UN. The Philippines did not send even a token opposition to the latest provocations, as if signaling surrender to the Chinese.

Even in the diplomatic front where it is expected to show more aggression, the Philippines meekly surrendered to Chinese bullying in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While the Foreign Secretary uttered strong words by protesting China’s “duplicity and intimidation,” the country has not even made a move to bring the case before the United Nations. After threatening for months to bring the dispute to international courts, not a single case has been filed.

By their inaction, Philippine leaders are slowly losing its valid claim by default.

Despite being the closest to the disputed islands, the Philippines occupies only nine islets in the Spratlys Group, with military presence and civilian population on Pag-asa island, the second largest in the group.

China occupies only seven in the Spratlys, but occupies all of the Paracels Group. Vietnam occupies 20 islets in the Spratlys, the most by the claimants. Taiwan occupies Taiping, the largest island in the Spratlys, and has a military garrison and an airstrip on the island. It said it would deploy long-range artillery in its garrison. Malaysia occupies three islands in the Spratlys, while Brunei does not occupy any island.

The country cannot afford to lose its claims over these island groups. They are simply too close to the country and can pose a serious security threat if occupied by hostile countries. Neither can the Philippines afford to lose access to the rich oil and gas reserves and the vast fishing grounds in the area.

The country has to have a firm short-term and long-term plan to assert its claim. The bullied has at least four options—stand aside, stand his ground, call his bigger brother to protect him against the bully, or bargain with the bully. Which one will it be?

Val Abelgas

Posted in: Politics