Sunday, December 23, 2012

Philippines Running Out of Options in China's Invasion to the territory

Philippines Running Out of Options in West Philippines Sea (South China Sea) Disputes

Earlier this year, the Philippines and China teetered on the brink of direct military confrontation over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, precipitating a series of high-stakes diplomatic exchanges that prevented open conflict but left the underlying dispute unresolved.

Although the episode jolted the Filipino leadership into recognizing the perils of armed brinkmanship with China, Manila's subsequent diplomatic approach to the conflict has achieved little. After almost seven months of intensive diplomatic engagement with China and the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), regional maritime tensions are still on the rise. Now, facing a potentially more assertive China under a new leadership, and in the absence of an effective regional approach to the ongoing territorial disputes, the Philippines seems to be running out of diplomatic options.

The Philippines finds itself heavily outmatched in asserting its territorial claims against China over a number of disputed islands, outcroppings and other features in the South China Sea. Facing a rapidly advancing Chinese navy and lacking an independent minimum defense capability, Manila has sought greater commitments from Washington to both the principle of freedom of navigation in the western Pacific and U.S. obligations under mutual defense treaties with allied nations in the region, including the Philippines, especially in the event of a direct confrontation with China over the disputed South China Sea territories.

At the same time, the Philippines has also stepped up its diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve the maritime disputes and appease a resurgent Beijing. Manila is committed to maintaining its expansive economic and investment relations with China. To avoid a direct bilateral confrontation with his country's giant neighbor, President Benigno Aquino's government has attempted to build support for a multilateral legal approach to settling disputes, principally under the auspices of ASEAN.

The current standoff began in April, when Chinese paramilitary forces, backed by the implied threat of naval involvement, overwhelmed Filipino naval forces that were initially deployed to intercept Chinese boats engaged in illegal fishing in the Scarborough Shoal -- an area well within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Subsequently, despite an agreement for both sides to withdraw vessels to de-escalate the situation, China instead consolidated its physical control over the shoal, effectively shutting off all access to Filipino ships. 

Outgunned and outmaneuvered, the Aquino administration had little choice but to respond with diplomatic measures. Its first resort was to moral suasion, pleading with the international community to pressure Beijing to respect the Philippines' EEZ under the provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Manila also prepared its legal case for possible future arbitration, unilaterally changed the name of the South China Sea to the "West Philippine Sea" and hosted the first region-wide ASEAN Maritime Forum to rally support against Chinese assertiveness.

A major thrust of its diplomatic push focused on reconciling differences with China, while attempting to convince ASEAN -- currently chaired by China's top regional ally, Cambodia -- to adopt a common front aimed at de-escalating tensions and peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea.

In June, the Aquino administration went so far as to effectively circumvent its own Department of Foreign Affairs when it sanctioned backchannel diplomatic efforts, led by a neophyte Filipino legislator with the support of Filipino-Chinese business leaders, to reach out to China. When the effort backfired and Chinese President Hu Jintao refused to meet Aquino on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in September, another special envoy, Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas, was sent to meet China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping.

Meanwhile, in July, Cambodia blocked the inclusion of South China Sea disputes in the final communiquƩ of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, provoking an ugly episode of Filipino-Cambodian diplomatic squabbling. In September, Aquino personally reached out to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, meeting him on the sidelines of a royal wedding in Brunei.

By October, the Aquino administration, conscious of the need to build a constructive atmosphere ahead of China's sensitive leadership transition in November, pushed for high-level bilateral talks with Chinese representatives, under the so-called Foreign Ministry Consultations, to bridge outstanding differences.

However, the true test of these efforts came in mid-November at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia, held alongside the pan-regional ASEAN+3 and East Asia Summits, where Aquino was eager to arrive at some agreement with Cambodia and China over the fate of the territorial disputes -- to no avail.

Cambodia blocked even the discussion of the disputes from the summits' agendas, extinguishing any efforts at developing a legally binding regional code of conduct to peacefully resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea. In response, Aquino launched a formal protest, while prodding the major Pacific powers, particularly the U.S., India and Japan, to play a more decisive role in the disputes. He ominously warned summit participants, especially Cambodia and China, "The ASEAN route is not the only route for us."

Subsequently, Beijing stepped up its maritime claims through a series of provocative measures, including issuing new maritime regulations in Hainan province on the movement of foreign vessels and unveiling a new passport design watermarked with a map representing the full extent of China's territorial claims across Asia.

As a result of its failed diplomacy, an anxious Manila is being gradually forced to adopt a more hawkish posture, including a further revitalization of military-strategic ties with the U.S. and other sympathetic Pacific powers. However, the Aquino administration faces major obstacles to closer defense ties with the U.S., including constitutional restrictions on the establishment of any permanent U.S. military presence, fierce domestic political opposition to such a move. The strategic and economic importance of China to both the Philippines and the U.S. further constrains the two allies' freedom of maneuver. So while diplomacy has yet to achieve major breakthroughs, it still might be Manila's best option.-Rebuilding for the Better Philippines (December 23, 2012)

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