Rappler Talk: The Philippines & China’s Great Wall of Sand

Former ABC News Beijing Bureau Chief Chito Sta Romana talks about the options available to Manila

MANILA, Philippines – How should the Philippines respond to China’s so-called Great Wall of Sand?

China’s massive reclamation in the South China Sea caught the world’s attention, with Beijing reclaiming 2,000 acres or 1,500 football fields in disputed territory in the past 18 months. 

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III raised the issue with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his state visit to Tokyo last week. The leaders discussed defense equipment and technology transfer, and a possible Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries with maritime disputes with China. 

China’s artificial islands were also a contentious topic in the Shangri-la Dialogue security summit held in Singapore in late May. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called it “out of step,” asserting that America will “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.” Chinese officials insisted that the construction projects are “legitimate, justified and reasonable.”

In Washington DC, President Barack Obama urged China to stop “throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way” in pursuit of its interests.

As China reclaims more land and the US-China rhetoric heats up, how should the Philippines play its cards?

Rappler talked to former ABC News Beijing Bureau Chief Chito Sta Romana on the options available to Manila. Watch as we talk about how the Philippines’ historic arbitration case, and the upcoming elections in the Philippines and the US also affect the long-running maritime row.

Click here for the audio version:

Here is the full transcript: 

What is China’s strategic goal in reclamation?

We can speak of at least two goals. Their tactical goal is they are doing it on 7 features. These are the features in the Spratlys that’s under the control of the Chinese. They have not attacked Pag-asa, although they have conducted a blockade on Ayungin, they have not taken over. What they’ve done instead is to build artificial islands on the reefs and shoals they control.

Why the 7? In our arbitration case, these are exactly the 7 features we mention, that either China is occupying illegally, or it cannot be occupied by any country but should belong to the high seas. The Chinese are doing this to say even if the arbitration case resolves this in our favor, here we are, come and get us if you can. So it is a challenge. It’s a way to undermine the arbitration case. That’s one. One is the strategic goal, and this is where it becomes subject to debate.

By building this airstrip, and these potential military installations, and this infrastructure on these 7 features, the Chinese basically will have a platform to: one, exercise some form of control over the South China Sea so it challenges the US in a sense.

The US is the ultimate arbiter of security. It’s the dominant power since World War II and since the end of the Cold War but now the Chinese, their objective was just to undermine the case filed by the Philippines, and to scare in a sense, the Philippines and Southeast Asia but they have now touched on a nerve, a strategic nerve that affected the US. Those are the goals of the Chinese from where I stand. 

Analysts say reclamation was a response to the Philippines’ arbitration case, that the Philippines provoked China. How do you see it?

We are now in an action-reaction cycle which started if you ask me in terms of the Philippines, it goes back to the Mischief Reef. The Chinese waited, they waited a couple of years. The Americans left and there was a vacuum and they started.

First of all, I think you should understand: the Chinese claim all the maritime features in the South China Sea, and the East China Sea that are above water at high tide, and even including those that are underwater at low tide, the submerged reefs. And Mischief Reef is such a reef, but they came late in the game. 

This claim has been there since the time of the Kuomintang but the Kuomintang left after they lost the revolution. That’s why when the Philippine explorer Cloma went to the Spratlys, there was nobody there. There was no Chinatown. Nobody would stop him. That’s why the beginnings of our claim.

The Kuomintang, Taiwan came back and got the biggest natural island. And then the Vietnamese of course were there ahead of Cloma. You have here more than several dozens of features, and the Vietnamese got most, and the Philippines we also got some of the best, the islands with beachfronts.

When the Chinese came, there were no more islands with beachfronts. All those left were just submerged reefs and some small islands but they needed to start somewhere. They started with Mischief Reef, and that was the first crisis, and we tried to resolve it peacefully, diplomatically, and then came Scarborough in 2012, before that the Recto Bank. We were interested in the gas and oil resources, and then the Chinese patrol ships harassed the ships hired by the Philippines.

I think it was after that the Philippine leadership decided that we have to draw a line. And somehow, the line was drawn when the Chinese fishermen were there at Scarborough. Now is the time to show it is ours.

Unfortunately, we underestimated 2 things. The Chinese already underwent a shift in foreign policy. They went for a proactive and assertive foreign policy to defend their core interests: their sovereignty claims. And they had declared a year or two before Scarborough that they would not allow their fishermen to be arrested by other countries. So that is where we had the first standoff. But it’s really the consequence of that that started this. There were negotiations brokered by the Americans, and somehow we withdrew, the Chinese did not, and they continued the effective occupation of Scarborough. 

We wanted to recover that. We can’t do it through naval or maritime standoff so they left us with no choice but to go to arbitration, the legal method but the Chinese did not accept this. For Chinese culture, there’s an element of Confucian culture. Under Confucian culture, to file a case against a neighbor is equivalent to humiliating or snapping the neighbor’s face.

So they were furious and also they looked into the case, and they said they have a legal arguments that they don’t have to go through arbitration. But the Chinese really are trying to influence arbitration because they came out with they call it a position paper. It’s really a counter-memorial and they put all their baskets, their defense on the issue of jurisdiction.

But to go back to this, it’s really the aftermath of the Scarborough standoff that started us on this path. The Chinese then, not willing to enter arbitration, decided we’re gonna end up losing our features in the Spratlys so they decided to proceed with land reclamation. But they did it secretly in the beginning, and it was only when it got exposed, that they started to explain it was for international.

This is the effect, you can call it the Rappler effect, the CNN effect or the BBC effect, when something is put under the glare of television, it mobilizes international public opinion. And the Chinese have not encountered this. So this is what they’re trying to react against.

But the point I’m making is it’s an action-counteraction. The problem now is that the Chinese were basically expecting the Philippine counteraction, which is diplomatic protest, go to ASEAN. They didn’t expect the US would react in this way. So the Chinese I think have made certainly tactical, and possibly a strategic miscalculation. And if you look at Xi Jinping’s rule, this is at least the third time they have done this. And it brings to question on how foreign policy is made in China.

The first one was the ADIZ. A unilateral declaration that elicited not only opposition from the US and Japan but international opposition. So what did the Chinese do, they didn’t say we won’t do it anymore, it’s just that they won’t implement it strictly.

Second was the oil rig with Vietnam. What did the Vietnamese do? The Vietnamese did the reverse of what the Chinese called the cabbage strategy. They employed their fishermen, their coast guards and their navy, and without firing a shot at each other, they basically used water cannons and ramming. One Vietnamese ship actually sank because of this. And this may be the third one, reclamation.

So the question is what will the Chinese do now? How will they react? I think they are basically caught in a bind. I think they will continue with their reclamation but because the Americans have made a big fuss about militarization, it may moderate. Because if the Chinese were to introduce anti-ship missiles or anti-air missiles, this would be a bigger story, a bigger case.

So it bears watching. Because the Americans will continue with their air and naval patrols. The Chinese will continue with their cat-and-mouse game but if the Chinese maintain a certain distance, then you won’t have any accident or miscalculation.

But if what happened last year off Hainan, when the Poseidon, when the US plane was doing a surveillance. And the Chinese J-11. This is like the Chinese version of the SU29 or the higher version of the Russian jet. So the possibility of accident or miscalculation is there.

Is the likelihood of an accident higher now?

It depends on how the two sides, how much distance they will maintain. There was one case in 2001. This was the case when the American surveillance plane was flying off the waters off Hainan, actually in the EEZ waters, and the Chinese plane came near, and their wings, they actually had a mid-air collision. The Chinese jet and its pilot crashed into the sea, and the American plane had to crash-land into Hainan, and the American crew was detained for more than 10 days. And this provoked a diplomatic and political crisis so you could have a repeat of that and probably worse.

Because can you imagine a sophisticated Chinese jet falling into the ocean, or a Poseidon falling into the ocean, all bets are off. This is what is to be avoided. An accident that could turn into a major incident that could turn into a possible conflagration. But both sides I think, neither the US nor the Chinese want a direct confrontation.

The Chinese for sure don’t want a war with the US now because they could lose, and the century of humiliation they are talking about that they want to overcome could be repeated. So that’s the least they want but we cannot preclude a short, sharp conflict if there is a miscalculation.

Why did the US respond so strongly to reclamation?

In the case of the reclamation, it touched a nerve in the case of the US, their strategy, their rebalancing because it will now put the Chinese in a position where they can exercise a form of de facto control over the South China Sea, and this is something the US is not prepared to do so.

Because if you look at the rebalance, this is actually an expression on the US side that they will not give up their dominant position in the Asia Pacific region. And if you look at what the Chinese is doing, the rise of Chinese power, particularly its naval and military power, it’s challenging the American, it’s shifting the balance of power. So we are in the beginning here, these are the opening salvos of what we are seeing as a historic transition, a rising power that is China, challenging an established power that is the US.

Of course, it is not just an issue of choosing between an American hegemony or a Chinese hegemony. Those are the two alternatives. Will the Chinese restore the Middle Kingdom, and the system of tributary states. Will the American maintain the rules-based American-backed international order which the Chinese are challenging.

You can actually have another alternative. For the US not to be the superpower but to become a major power and for the Chinese, from a regional power becomes a major power but you have Russia, Japan, India, ASEAN centrality. You can have a concert of powers that could actually be the situation in Southeast Asia, in Asia so it’s not just a choice between American hegemony or Chinese hegemony but the Americans are certainly not going to give up so easily.

Analysts say the Philippines should pursue bilateral talks while waiting for a ruling. What are our options?

The thing I want to add here. This is the year we are hosting APEC. The last thing we want is for the Chinese to boycott APEC because of this situation so I think there is a need. The Chinese foreign minister has visited all the members of ASEAN and even other Asian nations except the Philippines. They have pointedly avoided the Philippines because of the situation. We have to lower the temperature, the rhetoric.

Second, we have to restore some form of high-level dialogue. Even Japan, Vietnam have high-level dialogue, except us. In other words, if we restore some form of diplomacy, it does not mean we give up our claim or our arbitration case.

It’s not either/or?

That actually is what I think is the problem. People think of it as either/or, it’s not a binary option. You can combine it. Second, I think you have to put into consideration the post-arbitration scenario. Remember, the arbitration will not resolve the underlying problem, which is who really owns the Spratlys. The arbitration will only solve the second issue, the maritime entitlements. If that is solved, of course, it will clarify, provide a lot of legal clarity but then you still have to go and solve the legal issue.

The experience of Vietnam, from the 50s, it’s like they negotiated 50 years to resolve their border dispute. In the case of Russia, it’s like 60 years. The precondition is that you have good political relations. When they didn’t have good political relations, there was a border war between China and Vietnam, in the case of Russia and the Soviet Union, there were really some skirmishes.

We are at that stage and the key right now is to be able to prepare. After arbitration, the PH leadership has to consider going back to the negotiating table, use the clarity we achieve from a verdict of the arbitration to then hopefully gain more leverage but at the same time, seeking international support that we in a sense, we have successfully done right now.

We brought the issue to the international agenda. And not only an issue between the PH and China. It has now become an issue between the US and China. And the Chinese are furious that that is the case but in a negative sense, it shows the success of this policy. The question is to pursue this without causing any escalation and conflict, and if possible, to lower the temperature and rhetoric so you provide the conditions possibly for a return to diplomacy. After all both sides are willing to have a peaceful and diplomatic solution. The Chinese never agreed to a legal settlement but a political and diplomatic settlements.

They’ve had 14 border disputes with 14 land neighbors. 12 of them solved. The remaining one is with India, and a related to that Bhutan. They only solved one maritime dispute case, the case with Vietnam and it took decades of negotiations but it was sucessful on a 50-50 basis.

There may be a way out for the Spratlys but it will have to be on the basis of sharing or of a higher degree of statesmanship so that the political leadership of all the claimant states can then come to some form of agreement. There are other models in the world: even the North Sea, the Arctic Circle, even in Southeast Asia with other countries having joint ventures. There are formulas. The question right now is it became so complicated because the territorial, the maritime and the strategic issues have become so intertwined.

Will China be an issue in the Philippine elections? 

This could be the first presidential election where the China issue, an issue of foreign policy, could play an important role precisely because of the context we are in. All the candidates will have to state what their policy will be if they become president. Whoever will become president will inherit the arbitration ruling, will inherit the land reclamation issue, and will inherit this escalating geopolitical rivalry between the US and China. So for this reason, I think it will play an important role. It bears watching what each candidate will say about this because I think they will come ready.

I expect all of them to defend Philippine national interests. The questions will be in the nuances or details: joint venture, do you have a negotiation or do we file another case? These are the different options: what to do. In the case of the PH, we already experienced two extremes. From the time of GMA, it’s like close friendship with China at the time she had problems with the US. Now, in a sense, going all the way with the USA and with Japan against China.

I think we should look at best practices in the region. Even Vietnam has not dropped bilateral high-level talks with China, what more Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei. We are in the sense in the frontline and a lot of people are getting a free ride on us. They are trying to see how far we will go in our legal approach. We are the only one. We are carrying the banner aligning with the US, with Japan, with Australia, in a sense with Vietnam, and trying to get ASEAN.

But ASEAN in a sense is divided so our problem really is how to approach this issue in a way that will keep ASEAN unity intact and at the same time preserve our national interests and yet not escalate the geopolitical rivalry in the region. It’s a formidable task, and it will call for a high level of statesmanship and pragmatism. – Rappler.com