Of all the competing claims for territorial sovereignty to the Spratlys, the Philippine claim is the strongest and most compelling.
Based on the criteria of discovery, occupation and settlement, and jurisdictional rights outlined under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), the Philippines can make a more solid case than either China or Vietnam, the two other countries that are also asserting their claims over a potentially oil-and-other-minerals-rich Spratlys.
Recent reports that China is shipping a giant oil rig to start drilling in the hotly-contested Spratly Islands have enraged concerned Filipinos, particularly those living in the United States and Canada, to protest on the streets in several cities which observers believe could draw U.S. involvement in the escalating South Sea China conflict.
|Filipinos in Toronto rally before the Chinese Consulate, July 8, 2011, to protest|
China's encroachment in Philippine territory in the Spratly Islands. Click link to
view :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qTkQSbYmJU (Spratly Islands).
With China’s recent aggressiveness near the Spratly Islands, the Philippines ran to the United States to invoke the moribund 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty which made it obligatory for one to defend the other, when the latter is being attacked.
The United States government, with its usual diplomatic double-talk, made reassurances that it will not abandon the Philippines should the Spratly conflict further intensify. Senator John McCain publicly exhorted his government to extend stronger diplomatic support to an ally in the face of China’s bullying tactics.
During a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Secretary Clinton committed to defend the Philippines and emphasized that the U.S. would provide the Philippines with reliable military hardware so it can upgrade its capability to defend its territories in the South China Sea.
U.S. to beef up military response
It must be recalled that when the United States closed its military bases in the Philippines, China declared the whole of the South China Sea in 1992 as a part of its internal waters. The U.S. reaction was ambiguous as it stressed its neutrality on the Spratlys issue. It only changed its posture when the Chinese occupied the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1995, prompting the U.S. to fashion a new type of military response through the Philippine-American Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to justify the presence of American troops conducting joint and combined military exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in its territories.
The global war on terrorism in 2001 further gave impetus to American military presence on Philippine soil. China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is now viewed not only as a security challenge but more of a military threat.
|Map of Spratly Islands, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1996. Click link|
to view "The Meaning of Military Exercises in South China Sea."
China, on its part, has asked the United States to stay away from the regional conflict, thus signalling what many have observed as the beginning of a US proxy war with China in the South China Sea, particularly on Philippine battleground.
What is a proxy war?
A proxy war is not really a full-scale war and it works best during a Cold War, when there are no real armed hostilities. It results when opposing powers, such as the United States and China, use a third party like the Philippines as a substitute for fighting each other directly. A proxy war does not necessarily lead to full-scale armed hostilities, especially when two superpowers do not wish to fight each other directly and would not risk an escalation to a bigger and more destructive conflict.
From a strategic perspective, some political observers in the region are viewing the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea as not just a battle for maritime rights over oil and other mineral resources.
Many affirm that these disputes pose a real test to the emerging regional structure dominated by an ever-growing Chinese influence due to its robust economy, on one hand, and the shrinking U.S. clout in the region, on the other.
Security, in addition to oil, is another incentive in the Spratlys dispute. The Spratlys have long been considered as strategic bases for sea-lane defence, interdiction, surveillance and potential launching sites for land attacks.
The United States has very significant national security interests in maintaining unimpeded transit rights—on the surface, in the air and under the sea—throughout the South China Sea, especially to protect Japan in the event of hostilities. It seems unlikely for the U.S. to voluntarily accede to China’s supremacy over this part of the world without getting major concessions that will enhance its security interests. U.S. involvement becomes even more imminent due to pressures from its allies like Australia, Japan, and South Korea to counter the growing threat of a Chinese hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.
Daixu, a strategic analyst at the Chinese Energy Fund Board, has written that a Sino-U.S. proxy war is absolutely not alarmist. Quoting from the work of the American scholar Wei Lianen, he wrote that “expansion through war is in the nature of the United States….it has been transformed into a belligerent Sparta state.”
Popular opposition to China’s intimidating behaviour toward the other claimant countries in the South China Sea augurs well for American involvement in the regional conflict. It provides the United States with the opportunity and justification to enter into the fray, thus ensuring its strategic economic and military presence in the region.
A study conducted by Rand Corporation has recommended that the U.S. government beef up its military forces in the region and shift its security strategy from north to south. The Rand proposal envisions the integration of the Philippines into a new comprehensive security partnership along with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore and Thailand to prevent the rise of a dominant regional power (like China) that could undermine America’s role in the region.
Philippines caught in tug-of-war
U.S. involvement in the Spratlys dispute will further entrench the PHL-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and deepen the participation of the Philippines in American military operations in the region. Since the VFA was signed in 1999, several war exercises between the two countries have been conducted in Palawan or just a few kilometres away from the disputed Spratly islands, which Beijing protested as an indirect offense to China.
In August of this year, the Philippines and the United States are meeting to review their little-used mutual defence pact and consider U.S. access to its former military bases in the country. According to many observers, all these can be viewed as U.S. initiatives to revitalize and entrench its military involvement in the region.
|Filipino demonstrators march during a protest rally in front of the US embassy in|
Manila, opposing joint military exercises. Photo by Francis R. Malasig/EP. Click
link to view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66V8JQRKDxI&feature=relmfu,
" The Balance in the South China Sea."
Need to assert national sovereignty
During the Philippine celebration of Independence Day last June 12, Vencer Crisostomo, chairman of the national youth group of Anakbayan, denounced Philippine president Noynoy Aquino for begging for U.S. intervention in the Spratlys dispute. The youth leader said, “Their script is predictable: on the grounds of China’s bullying, we will ask for help from our supposed long-standing ally, the U.S. First, we will be given more arms, then more U.S troops, and then eventually the return of U.S military bases.”
“We should assert our national sovereignty on our own terms, instead of allowing ourselves to become the battleground of a U.S proxy war with China,” Crisostomo added.
The trajectory of Filipino protests against China, therefore, must be redirected, not against China’s show of military muscle in the region, but against its continuing refusal and arrogance in refusing to recognize the claims of the other nations, and its bull-headed objection to a multilateral settlement of the conflicting territorial claims. China’s intransigence is the cause of the present stalemate. Absent China’s cooperation, however, the disputes will remain for generations and this could engender a de facto military occupation by whoever has the military wherewithal.
Promoting a multilateral solution
At the same time, the protests should also target American entrenchment of its military goals and operations in the region. Continuing U.S. presence will only exacerbate the tense atmosphere in the South China Sea, which could potentially trigger a military confrontation in the region.
Instead of hyping up the Spratly Islands conflict by issuing provocative and agitative statements, the Philippines can take the lead in promoting a peaceful and multilateral resolution of the Spratlys dispute by the Southeast Asian nation-claimants, without U.S. intervention.