Manila paddles harder in the South China Sea

Posted on November 15, 2012

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MANILA – At the recently concluded UN General Assembly in New York, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario made an emphatic speech to rally global support for his country’s rule of law position vis-a-vis China over ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

“Today my country faces its most serious challenge to the security of its maritime domain and integrity of its national territory, as well as its effective protection of its marine environment,” said Del Rosario. “The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has never been more relevant than it is today, all States must respect their obligations to settle their maritime disputes by peaceful means, without threats or use of force under UNCLOS.”

Protesters march towards the Chinese consulate during a rally Friday, May 11, 2012 in Manila’s financial district of Makati, Philippines. The Philippines and China are in a standoff over Scarborough Shoal which began early April after the Philippine navy accused Chinese boats of illegally fishing in the area.
Pat Roque/AP

In a veiled criticism of China’s growing assertiveness, he called for a “rule-based approach” to avoid weaker countries from being forced to accept that “might is right”. His speech was a clear appeal for greater international intervention while portraying the Philippines as a responsible member of the international community – and not just an instrument of America’s “pivot” to Asia to contain China.

Lacking a credible deterrence capability, the Philippines is now pouring more time and energy into its diplomacy, especially towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). An ASEAN Summit meeting to be held in Cambodia later this month will be attended by global leaders, including US President Barack Obama, and will be closely watched for progress on the South China Sea issue.

The 10-member grouping’s usual consensus broke down earlier this year when its members failed to issue a joint communique due to differences of opinion on the South China Sea. While Manila has expressed its commitment to utilize all instruments of national power, including revitalized bilateral military ties with the US, to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea, diplomacy appears to have moved to the center of its overall strategy.

There are basically three reasons for this strategic shift:

  • Lingering doubts about the extent of the US’s commitment to the Philippines’ defense, especially in the event of direct confrontation with China over disputed territories.
  • A growing emphasis on repairing ties with China, setting the stage for better relations with the incoming new leadership in Beijing.
  • Increasing confidence in an ASEAN-led multilateral approach, with Brunei (a party to ongoing conflicts in the South China Sea) poised to take over the rotational chairmanship of the organization from Cambodia (a staunch ally of China). In recent months, the Philippines’ diplomatic offensive has moved forward on multiple levels. On one hand, the Philippines has stepped-up its direct bilateral diplomacy towards China after an earlier backdoor attempt backfired, creating further acrimony and division within Manila’s leadership. Recent indications are that the Aquino administration is keen to create a more positive atmosphere amid the highly sensitive leadership transition in China.

Owing to the significance of bilateral economic ties, the Philippines has become more cautious in projecting its deepening military relations with the US. In recent weeks, top Filipino officials, apparently conscious of China’s constant and wary gaze, have notably toned down their rhetoric.

Manila has consistently bid to assuage China’s strategic anxieties through reassurances that joint military exercises with the US are merely defensive in nature rather than aimed at China. The Philippines has adamantly emphasized that its military cooperation with the US is focused on more benign Non-Traditional Security (NTS) issues rather than bolstering its South China Sea claims.

The Philippines most important diplomatic coup, however, came through its recent hosting of the third ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF), which brought together leading experts as well as high-level representatives from across the Pacific. The forum provided a crucial platform for Manila to refocus ASEAN efforts on the issue of maritime security, emphasizing the need for regional solidarity and increased cooperation.

Manila had earlier failed to win sufficient support for its diplomatic proposals, especially regarding a binding regional Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea during both the 2011 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Indonesia. The 2012 ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Cambodia, whereby Phnom Penh – allegedly under Beijing’s influence – blocked even the inclusion of the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea in the final communique.

With the fate of a regional CoC in limbo and growing concerns over strategic rifts within the ASEAN, the Philippines is desperate to inject some life back into its diplomatic efforts and steer a more unified regional approach.

Maritime cooperation
On October 3, the Philippines hosted the 3rd AMF, a confab that assembled senior foreign ministry officials from across Southeast Asia for a three-day event focused on interrelated maritime issues such as maritime connectivity, marine environment, sea piracy, search and rescue at sea, fisheries, and maritime security.

The forum built on the conclusions of the 6th East Asia Summit, whereby EAS leaders underscored the importance of maritime cooperation and security. Aside from being the region’s primary forum for the discussion of maritime issues, this year’s AMF was also the first Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF), which brought together all 18 members of the broader pan-regional East Asia Summit.

On the last day of the forum, participation was extended to include multi-sectorial representatives – academics, private stake-holders, and government officials – from eight ASEAN partner countries, namely Australia, the US, India, Japan, South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and New Zealand. Significantly, the Chinese foreign ministry refused to divulge the identity of its representatives ahead of the forum, while there were hints that the Japanese representatives would attempt to discuss the ongoing dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

Filipino officials were straightforward about their objectives for the forum. “The Philippines would like to positively engage our partners to discuss cross-cutting maritime issues and explore ways and means to enhance activities aimed at bolstering maritime security and cooperation in East Asia,” said Foreign Affairs Assistance Secretary Raul Hernandez.

Simultaneously, the Philippines expressed its desire to open sensitive discussions with the Chinese and Americans while rallying support from both ASEAN members as well as varying strategic partners across the Pacific for a more concrete security architecture to oversee ongoing territorial disputes. The Philippines thus sought to put ongoing disputes under the spotlight in a bid to build urgency around the need for a more binding CoC.

It also highlighted “freedom of navigation” issues related to the disputes. Back in 2010, during the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi, the US showed favor towards Vietnam and the Philippines, when it indirectly chastised China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and identified “freedom of navigation” as a national interest, carving out a place at the center of ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Ahead of the forum, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed Washington’s support for the objectives and format of the event by stating, “All 18 East Asia Summit states have been invited for in-depth discussions on how to improve safety on the region’s waterways, combat piracy, protect the environment, and we are encouraged by the recent informal dialogue between ASEAN and China as they work toward a comprehensive code of conduct for the South China Sea as a means to prevent future tension in the region.”

To underscore the forum’s importance in the eyes of the Filipino leadership, Vice President Jejomar Binay was also in attendance. In his keynote speech, he couched his statements in the more benign language of regional maritime cooperation by emphasizing the need to rein in growing NTS challenges while ensuring the steady flow of energy shipments across vital regional sea lanes. He also underscored the AMF’s utility as a platform for continuous maritime strategic cooperation.

“It is therefore of vital importance to secure sea lanes communication and continue combating piracy to ensure freedom and safety of navigation in the seas of Southeast Asia,” Binay said. “Without duplicating the work of relevant ASEAN bodies, the ASEAN Maritime Forum should be institutionalized as the comprehensive and cooperative platform for strategic engagement.”

Owing to the sensitivity of the issues on the agenda, potential areas of cooperation among member countries were initially discussed behind closed doors. The chairman’s statement from the 3rd AMF, however, raised two significant points: (1) participants’ emphasis on respecting international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), as well as the grouping’s recent Six Point Principles on the South China Sea; and (2) the participants’ recognition of the critical role of sharing information and best practices.

On the first day of the forum, the Philippines put forward a regional information-sharing system proposal to supposedly protect Southeast Asia’s waters against a whole range of “threats”, including drug trafficking, gun smuggling, human trafficking, illegal fishing, and weather disturbances. According to the proposal, the system would “provide timely, relevant and material information to appropriate action agencies to enable them to combat non-traditional security threats at sea.”

To avoid controversy and ensure engagement among participants with conflicting positions, the proposal’s wording was intentionally vague. In particular, it failed to specify the mechanics of “information-sharing” and omitted any mention of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. What is clear is that although the prospects of a regional CoC remains elusive, the Philippines has managed through diplomacy to return the issue of maritime security and the need for cooperation back to the center of regional official discussions.

Richard Javad Heydarian

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