Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Spratlys: China and the Philippines (July 13, 2012)

It has not always been the headline news in the Philippines, even less so for Filipinos in America. As important as it should be to Filipinos everywhere, other pressing issues have drawn our main attention away from it. But as we continue to give the story ancillary billing for the most part, the dispute between China and the Philippines over sovereignty in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea continues to simmer, ebbing from a mutual backing down to escalating into a confrontation over territory.

Surely the governments of China and the Philippines can stop their bickering and diplomatically reach a fair agreement over ownership of the disputed islands. No need to go to war over this, is there? You would be right to express this, except as is the case in territorial disputes, what is “fair” can be very subjective and contingent upon the interests of the countries involved, in addition to the gravitational pull of historical and political forces that inform the issue.

Here is what I mean: China bases its claims over the entirety of the Spratlys on historical foundations. As such, Beijing refers to maps that are half a century old to legitimize their claims. The Philippines meanwhile, doesn’t have to strain credulity since a chunk of the Spratlys are geographically well within its 200-nautical mile economic zone, a zone that is designated by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas. It happens to be a convention that China is a signatory to.

When you consider the available evidence objectively, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that the Philippines has far more of a case for its claim in the Spratlys than the Chinese do. As I’ve said, about a third of the islets that make up the Spratlys lie with the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone. So legally and geographically, Manila’s grounds for sovereignty over their portion of the Spratlys should carry the day. Especially if you remember that the closest part of China to the Spratlys is a distant 1,000 nautical miles.

So what gives China the right to intimidate competing claimants and to plant their flag anywhere they please on the Spratlys? A couple of ancient maps? Maps like any other documents, can be manipulated. There is something else that makes Beijing believe that it has the right to say that the Spratlys are all theirs, something that is not historically precedent-setting or unfamiliar to the world of human and political relations. It is something that the Philippines is terribly lacking in. That something is “power”, nothing more, nothing less.

Good people everywhere are fond of depicting the world as having a “right” and a “wrong” moral partition. But what good people forget is that any notion of right-versus-wrong is rendered implausible by contending demands that are immersed in consummate pragmatism, expediency, and national self-interest. It is truly a matter of undue advantage, but China, while it probably doesn’t have the moral, geographical, legal, or even historical right to the Spratlys, has the economic, military, and political power to take what it wants. Any historian will tell you that this has been the pattern of any ascendant power that has ever existed, including the United States.

The next question we should ask is whether there is going to be a war between China and the Philippines over this motley collection of reefs, atolls, and islets. Highly unlikely in the short-term; anyone’s guess in the long-term. For now, it is in no one’s interest to tie a final resolution to the dispute to the furies of war. For one thing, economic reasons force hawks on both sides to calm down: the Philippines’ economic ties to China are firm and prosperous; and China’s own economic ties to the United States, a historical and indefatigable military ally of Manila, are too valuable to risk a conflagration. For now anyway.

In the long-term however, the unwritten law of regional hegemony states that the standing regional power’s primacy can not only be unchallenged, but enhanced and expanded as well. There is little to stop China—other than a strong American military commitment—from trying to forcefully assert its strength well past its shores down the road. Actually, Filipinos should almost expect it for the Philippines is one of the countries that stands in its way.


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