“The South China Sea (SCS)has increasingly become an armed camp as the claimants build up and modernize their navies… China has so far confiscated 12 islands, Taiwan one, Vietnam 25, the Philippines 8, and Malaysia 5…” — Robert D. Kaplan
MANILA, Philippines — During the last fortnight, in lectures and roundtable discussions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC; at three universities (Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Seton Hall); the San Diego World Affairs Council; the Cerritos (Los Angeles) Main Library, and other venues across the US, FVR opined: “Shadow boxing between the US and China has taken a serious turn over the latter’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea (or Spratlys).”
Undeclared arms race
FVR’s consistent theme in recent engagements here and abroad is that Beijing and Washington are in an undeclared arms race – which must be moderated and resolved by peaceful, cooperative undertakings.
For the moment, the contest is focused on the SCS, but ultimately centers on China’s desire to rival the global dominance of the US. China’s aim is to erode the credibility of Washington’s security guarantees to Asian allies, including the Philippines, and reduce the US sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific. Despite these problems, FVR does not think war between China and the US would break out. He has asserted in previous essays and speeches that in our globalized, interdependent, and connected world, there are no longer nation-enemies intent on triggering World War III and actualizing M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction).
Today, the enemies of humankind at large are international terrorism, global warming/climate change, poverty, deprivation, hunger, endemic disease, and ignorance everywhere.
In past weeks, new developments emanating from various nation-claimants and stakeholders have roiled the Spratlys/Paracels/SCS issues, fueling continued anxieties, particularly China’s naval build-up and “strategic ambiguity” in its claims in the SCS. Notable among these are:
(1) Taiwan is deploying Tien-Chien missiles to replace its vintage-1980 Chaparrals and outdated air-defense artillery. This is in response to recent Vietnamese deployment of thousands of troops in the SCS backed by Russian-made fighter jets – to beef up the small Taiwanese garrison. (Agence France Presse, 14 October).
(2) Singapore has challenged China to clarify its claims “with more precision as current ambiguities on their extent causes serious concerns in the international community,” according to Singapore’s Foreign Ministry. Although not a claimant, Singapore as a major trading nation has critical interests in the freedom of navigation in the SCS.
(3) US and Philippine Marines started last 17 October joint exercises in the West Philippine Sea as part of the yearly RP-US Amphibious Landing Exercises. This year’s Phiblex is the 28th edition of the RP-US exercises, but the first with Palawan as a venue, according to Brig. Gen.Eugene Clemen, Philippine exercise director. He said 1,000 Filipino and 2,000 US Marines are participating. For his part, Brig. Gen. Craig Timberlake, US director, stressed that the two allies are seeking improved interoperability of units as the “goal of the annual exercises.”
(4) Director Tran Toung Thuy of the Vietnam Center for East Asia Studies (also Foreign Ministry adviser), accused China of aggressively using its military power and diplomatic double-talk to prevent ASEAN from adopting a binding code of conduct to stop Chinese intrusions. At the C. P. Romulo Forum on SCS issues last 17 October, he warned that in spite of China’s charm offensive, Beijing continues to “control the SCS strategically and economically.”
(5) Philippine Navy authorities seized 25 unmanned motorized fishing boats abandoned by a larger Chinese vessel upon the approach of a Philippine gunboat. This took place near Reed Bank, 90 miles from the western coast of Palawan. Although the DFA considered it a “little incident,” this was speculated upon by media as new Chinese “creeping intrusion.” (AFP, 20 October).
Peaceful resolution forthcoming?
There, however, have been calming moves on the part of major SCS players, principally:
(1) China’s President Hu called for “reunification with Taiwan” before Communist Party leaders at the 100th Annniversary of the revolution that ended the Qing dynasty after 2,000 years of unbroken imperial rule. (AFP 10 October).
(2) The Philippines and Vietnam agreed to protect the Spratlys ecosystem from over-exploitation, and enhance their cooperation on maritime matters, according to the DFA (10 October).
(3) India and Vietnam signed an accord to promote oil exploration in Vietnamese waters which extend to the SCS, thus arousing Chinese suspicions. (Associated Press/AFP, 12 October).
(4) China and Vietnam signed an agreement to resolve maritime disputes by holding twice-yearly meetings, install hot-lines to deal with emergencies, and making the SCS “a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.” (Associated Press, 14 October).
(5) Meantime, the US appealed for calm over international concerns re arms build-up by SCS rivals. “We encourage all claimants to resolve disputes through peaceful means, in accordance with international law and without resorting to threats or use of force,” according to the Pentagon (AP/AFP, 14 October).
Rivalry for dominance
Throughout FVR’s dialogues, roundtables, and lectures across the US, the prevailing opinion of audiences about US-China rivalry was:
(1) Any disputes and controversial incidents must be settled by peaceful means.
(2) Binding commitments must be immediately undertaken by China/other claimants on a multilateral basis.
(3) Confidence-building measures, instead of deliberate provocations, must be instituted.
(4) Final resolution of SCS disputes must be done quickly at UN level in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
(5) Resources in the SCS may be developed jointly for the mutual benefit of claimants, and with full respect for UN covenants on freedom of navigation and environmental protection.
Is war inevitable?
In the current Foreign Policy issue (September-October), prestigious book author Robert D. Kaplan, predicts: “War is far from inevitable, even if competition is a given. And if China and the US manage the disputes successfully, Asia and the world will be a more secure, prosperous place.
Kaplan, geopolitics expert and member of the US Defense Policy Board, continues:
“The SCS joins the Southeast Asian states with the Western Pacific. Here is the center of maritime Eurasia, punctuated by the straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar. More than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these chokepoints, and a third of all maritime traffic.
“Oil transported through Malacca from the Indian Ocean to the SCS is more than six times the amount through the Suez Canal and 17 times that through the Panama Canal. Roughly 2/3 of South Korea’s energy supplies, 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s, and 80 percent of China’s oil imports come through the SCS.”
“What’s more, the SCS has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.”
China’s bonuses (one-time)
Further affirms Kaplan: “China’s dramatic rise was propelled by two one-time bonuses: declining fertility and increasing urbanization.
“Both factors have led to massive economic productivity, but they are finite processes and cannot be counted on in the future. China’s fertility rate was already falling well before the implementation of its draconian one-child policy in 1979, which meant that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the state could focus its limited resources on a relatively small number of children.
These children, now in their mid-30s, are actively contributing to the country’s human capital and GDP. More important, low fertility rates over the past decades freed up women to enter the labor market and are now boosting China’s GDP.
This has given China a one-time boost – but it will not help long-range GDP growth. Future generations of Chinese will be saddled with the care of more elderly relatives.
Urbanization in China
Today, significantly braking China’s economic surge and superpower ambitions is the rise of people protests because of housing dislocations and other forced transfers. In above-cited analysis, Kaplan says:
“Increasing urbanization is the other one-time bonus that boosted China’s economic growth these past decades. Urbanization increases GDP because city dwellers typically work in paid employment, whereas countryside people engage in unpaid subsistence farming.
“But like fertility reduction, urbanization is a process with natural limits. China’s level of urbanization is still well below that of the West, but shows no signs of slowing down. What form will this take? Huge shantytowns are already forming on the edges of Beijing, Shanghai, and other megacities.
“Chinese authorities bulldoze shanties by the hundreds of thousands every year, but it is unclear whether residents are being relocated or just being made homeless. Whether or not the Government wins its war against slum development, the days are gone when urbanization was a boost to economic growth.”
Must-dos for the Philippines
Considering all of the above, the Philippines must:
(1) Defend the Kalayaan Island Group in Palawan and the West Philippine Sea.
(2) Press – and press again and again – for the multilateral resolution of the SCS issues at the level of ASEAN and the UN.