We are a maritime and archipelagic nation – Part II

By Edmund Tayao

Déjà vu China problem

“All warfare is based on deception”, an old adage from Sun Tzu, applies to China’s actions in the disputed islands, both positively and negatively.

Positively because the nine-dash line, which was 11-dash line many years before and more recently has become 10-dash line, does not provide any clear basis other than the all-encompassing claim of “indisputable sovereignty” and the rather, now archaic and impertinent supposed basis in history. Indeed China (that includes Taiwan or ROC) has always claimed much if not the whole of the South China Sea.

This appears in many treatises China has signed before, even hundreds of years back, not to mention many of their official declarations, but these are all superseded now with the world’s adoption of the United National Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982.

Surely, after the Second World War and even several years after that, so much already changed in the world. It is but imperative for the global community to review bygone practices and enact conventions consistent with prevailing practices.

Not only was UNCLOS officially adopted by almost all countries, effectively setting aside any “historical” claim by any country in 1982; more importantly China was among the first group of countries that signed the convention. Not only did they ratify the convention in 15 May 1996, China also participated in the formulation of the convention’s Implementing Agreement in 1994, and the 1995 Agreement relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks

The continued use of the dash lines has therefore only promoted confusion; unless of course it is the plan itself, noting another Sun Tzu teaching that “the whole secret is in ‘confusing’ the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent”.

A senior Chinese government maritime law expert was even quoted in a 2008 diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks however, that he was unaware of the historical basis of the nine dashes. If it is an official policy, government officials, especially in the case of China, with its famed rigidly organized and professional bureaucracy, a senior official at that, should very well be aware of said policy, especially as to why it is made to be official. It certainly cannot be unofficial considering that it impacts substantially to China’s relations with other countries and that their government has always been the one that made in public.

Now, if the objective is “deception”, it would appear that their activities in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) have been contradictory, thus as mentioned in the foregoing, impacts negatively. The continual use of their militia and swarming in the disputed waters has been anything but consistent with deception; if at all, these actions have been categorical, consequently giving away their real intention. Using their fishermen for example would have been ok; it could be made to appear, and many can consider that their purpose is simply to ensure access to rich fishing grounds. More than the swarming of their fishermen militia however, the Chinese Coast Guard has been constantly harassing the Philippine Coast Guard.

The Chinese navy has been making its presence felt recently to boot. All these only bolsters the conclusion that ultimately China has become expansionist. All the more supporting the recent pronouncement of the Secretary of National Defense.

At this day and age, this does not make any sense. All the more if we think of how much China has gained in recent decades, and more recently in shoring up their influence in many countries around the world, not only in Africa and Southeast and North Asia but even in Europe. If one takes a closer look in some of these countries influenced by China, you could even say they managed to take control of countries without coercion or use of violence. The behemoth that it is, China can of course afford to do as they please and it seems they know they can get away with it, that it shows they have no qualms to just do what they want.

This is exactly the situation in the region for decades now. A small country like us could not readily act on our interest without being warned of repercussions. We could have been ready by now in the event that Malampaya loses supply as experts say it would soon lose supply. More importantly, it takes time to develop another source that we have to act fast if the plan is to avert the negative effect of closing Malampaya. Obviously this is something that can significantly impact on our energy requirements and therefore push up the price of oil and energy considerably.

Some years back the drilling of a new site was underway. All the preparations have been made that even the necessary equipment imported from abroad and to be used at sea was already there. Consider the billions that were lost as a result of suddenly stopping it because of China’s protestations. We were told of course that we could proceed only in partnership with them. There were proposals made then, but said proposals only favor China, regardless whether management, operations and proceeds will be shared with the Philippines. We were asked to consider “joint stewardship”, not because there was a need for more capital and that there were not enough investors, but because the place is claimed by China. If we accede, we might as well just acknowledge that they have a valid claim and that what we are entitled to as already provided for by international conventions are effectively negated.

The thing is we have been down this road before, and we simply have not been giving much thought to it. No doubt many in government and even experts outside government have been deeply mulling over how to better engage China so that we would not always be restrained and or limited with our options. For a long time now undoubtedly we know what we have and what we don’t have, but wittingly or unwittingly, we have been doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result after. We have explained in an earlier article that we cannot rely on either China or US. Yes we should remain friends with them, but not to a point of relying entirely on one and expecting either of them to be sincerely concerned to our welfare. Our objective with our continuing friendship with them should be just like them, getting enough of the partnership for our own gains, that in time we would be able to develop credible capabilities, be it in security or otherwise.

We can start with understanding the extent of what many seem to believe, that China, unlike other countries, have not been expansionist. It has always been known to be the middle kingdom meaning it is the center of the world or of civilizations. There are a number of books that will tell you what it exactly means but as to the origin of this thinking, the shared narrative is that it has always been how China described or presented itself to the world ever since. This has also been the basis of their way of administration before where vassal states paid homage and respect. Unlike other countries before however, China did not go out of its way to occupy other countries, at least not one beyond its shores. As a middle kingdom, many are of the opinion that China always thought itself superior and as such should always be above and isolated from the others. In fact, the attitude of the Chinese state in the early days of migration and relations with other countries, is that emigration overseas is officially non-existent and that those who left China were vagabonds or criminals (Chia 2006).

It is the West no doubt that came to conquer many countries all over the world, Asia most especially including the Philippines. Looking back, the impact of the colonial period have been far-reaching; many countries lost the opportunity to develop public institutions on their own, according to their own unique characteristics and conditions as many did before them. Instead, conquered countries were made to follow the political systems that were given to them by their colonial masters, a precondition for their independence. As expected, the influence of the West remain. Be that as it may, it does not mean China had no contribution to how today’s states turned out to be. Perhaps not downright political but pervasive influence just the same.

As is posited in the previous article, we are a maritime as we are an archipelagic nation. How and what we are have been is due largely to our environment. The populating of the Philippine islands started mainly from the south as we have always been in contact with our pacific neighbors. Because precisely we are an archipelago, bounded and separated by waters all over, we always had relations with our Western and Northern neighbors that of course includes China. We may not have been occupied by China, but their influence has always been there even before the colonial period; and this is true throughout Asia. This is the very reason why China has always been arguing that Asia should be by and for Asians, using history and geography to justify the need to keep other influences away. This may be true to a large extent but we should be able to also use it to our advantage.

Understanding much of the past is the key to understanding our previous and current relations and influences and in turn dealing with our challenges. So much has changed, good or bad no doubt, especially in ourselves, in the way we do things, but one thing remains, the nature of our environment, where we are and its significance up to now. We may have forgotten much of our maritime past and capacities but we remain drawn to the conditions of our maritime environment and it is in understanding all these that we can formulate a good way moving forward.

The middle kingdom may not have been keen on expanding outside the mainland but it has been actively engaging other countries ever since especially in maritime trade, and officially or not, there are those who have decided to live in the Philippines then and now. There is so much to learn in many studies conducted in this regard. For example, official documents and various private letters in Spanish Philippines describe the Chinese as a dangerous group threatening the social order and stability in the Philippines, apt to commit both violent and non-violent crimes, treacherous in business dealings, and so successful in whatever trade or business they engage in (Chia 2006). The response of Spanish authorities then is what anyone is likely to consider outright, banish the Chinese in the Philippines. In time however, the Spanish officials relented and realized their need for Chinese skilled workers. This is how the “Parian” was born; these are districts or areas outside city walls established for Chinese settlements while curfew was set to forbid them staying inside the walls once evening struck.

Two things would come to mind reflecting on this; trade and numbers. The same formula used today and proven to be effective. As has already been mentioned, we just have to look around the world and learn of the experience of other countries, especially those less developed than us and understand how China has come to control them without employing violence or occupying them as previous colonial masters did before. And in our case, despite all the bullying we have had to endure from them, we don’t have much of a choice but to remain friends and maintain trade relations. The same goes even in the case of America, especially during Trump’s presidency, China has been considered a threat but remained friends, compared for example with how they dealt with Russia. In fact China would not have been where it is today if not for the Americans (we will explain this in the next installment). Their sheer size has been put to good use. China produces and sells just about anything, from raw materials to finished product, i.e. food to electronics and industrial products. It’s 1.5 billion population alone is a huge market. The question now given all these is how best to deal with them, that we don’t always get the proverbial short end of the stick.

War is definitely out of the question. Even if in a few years, which is impossible, we’re able to develop our military that we can then engage them, there simply is nothing to gain but everything to lose in going to war in this day and age. Consider especially what happened in Ukraine; they didn’t necessarily win as their losses have been considerable but Russia definitely did not win either as they also incurred considerable losses without achieving anything they intended to achieve. We also have to ask why the US have not done anything short of a war in the WPS and in other international sea lanes China has disputed claims. Obviously it is consciously avoiding war but more than that, it is aware that it can only lose if it departs from its current relations with China.

Trade is the key here. No one, not we especially, can gain anything from altering trade relations with our big neighbor, but it is also the key to their influence. We have not been able to engage them even just diplomatically and standing pat on what is really ours because we cannot afford to lose our valued trade relations with them. It should also be noted that China has always dealt with individual countries bilaterally, instead of engaging ASEAN as a group. This approach is of course, again to their advantage because of their sheer size, but more than that, ASEAN’s decision-making has always been by consensus. It would appear to be next to impossible, but if only ASEAN can find a way to qualify this rule on consensus decision-making.

Two things to their advantage, and two things we can consider so we can at least attempt to change the result of our dealings with them. One, we have to find a way to calibrate trade relations with them. Two, which also impacts the first is to find ways to continue dealing with them diplomatically but with a different approach, taking note of the existing strengths and limitations of available venues of international negotiations using it to our advantage including considering ways to reform. These will require serious rethinking as there are so many possible approaches toward these ends.


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