West Philippine Sea: Are we running out of options?

Richard Javad Heydarian
West Philippine Sea: Are we running out of options?
It is time for bold and more decisive responses to Chinese creation of facts on the waters. For starters, we should fortify our position in areas we already control.

For decades, China’s foreign policy has been shaped and guided by Deng Xiaoping’s – the late Chinese paramount leader, who was responsible for opening up the country to forces of globalization – famous dictum: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” 

Recognizing the imperative of national development, after decades of disastrous policies under the megalomaniac Mao Zedong, Deng aptly saw the necessity for a low-profile, amicable and calculating foreign policy, which provides the conditions for stable and peaceful rise of China. It was precisely this ingeniously pragmatic doctrine, which undergirded China’s remarkable economic transformation in the last three decades. Ironically, (nominally) communist China has emerged as history’s most successful capitalist story. 

In the past decade, as China became “moderately prosperous” it gradually discarded Deng’s counsel in favor of a new brand of assertiveness, anchored by growing international economic influence and regional territorial expansionism. China’s economic rise has certainly been a positive source of trade and investments for many developing countries around the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America. Its maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters, however, has partially belied China’s claim of ‘peaceful rise’ and preference for ‘win-win relations’ with the world. 

Not only claimant countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, but also non-claimant countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan have been perturbed by China’s unbridled gobbling up of contested features in international waters such as the West Philippine Sea (WPS). And as China establishes the skeleton of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, it will be in a position to drive out Southeast Asian claimants from other features in the Spratly chain of islands. 

Brutal honesty 

Shortly after a TV interview, where I discussed the implications of China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea and warned about the prospects of a de facto ADIZ in the area, I stumbled upon a major announcement by China’s feisty Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying, who boldly declared: “China is entitled to set up ADIZs” in adjacent waters, and a “decision in this regard depends on whether the air safety is threatened and to what extent it is threatened.”

It was a statement that was unsurprisingly provocative, but shockingly honest at the same time. For long, China has resorted to what I call “strategic ambiguity:” That is to say, using rhetorical obfuscation and quasi-legal explanations to cover up for destabilizing actions on the ground. After all, China’s actions violate the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC), which discourages any unilateral alteration of the status quo, as well as international law, which bars the permanent and artificial alteration of disputed features.

For instance, China is yet to even identify, among other things, the precise coordinates of its infamous “nine-dashed-line” claims. Nor has it fully clarified the legal validity of its vague notion of “historical rights” in the WPS vis-à-vis modern international law. Whenever China was pressured to clarify its activities in adjacent waters, it tried to shut down the discussion by claiming “inherent and indisputable sovereignty” over contested features. 

Far from deterring China, the Philippines’ decision to bring the maritime disputes to the court seems to have exacerbated the situation. Since 2014, when we filed our memorial, China has accelerated its construction activities across a whole host of features in the Spratly chain of islands. It is calibrated move to preempt two major developments in 2016: The expected conclusion of the arbitration procedures at The Hague, and the possibly consequential leadership change in Washington. 

China wants to hand down a fait accompli to both the international court and the next American administration by achieving de facto – if not de jure – domination over contested features in the WPS. 

The new normal

True, China is not the only country that has engaged in construction activities in the WPS. But no other claimant country comes even close to the scale, speed, and sophistication of China’s geo-engineering overhaul of the Paracel and Spratly chain of islands. 

The Fiery Cross Reef, for instance, has been enlarged by 11 times its original size, now bigger than all naturally-formed islands in the area. It hosts about 200 soldiers, and is soon expected to host a large airstrip and become the command-and-control headquarters of China’s activities across the WPS. By deploying missile and satellite systems and expanding its air and naval patrols in the area, China could soon create an exclusion zone in the WPS and choke off the supply lines of other claimant states, which constantly need to resupply their personnel and refurbish facilities on other features.  

No wonder China has become more confident in sketching out its strategic objectives and motivations, because it feels that it may have decisively won the scramble in the adjacent waters. In an uncharacteristically detailed manner, the Chinese Foreign Ministry recently cited numerous objectives of its reclamation activities in the area. 

It even tried to put an “international obligations” spin on its mindboggling construction activities by citing “maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas” as among its objectives in the area. Alarmingly, however, it also mentioned “necessary military defense requirements” as among the potential purposes of its growing presence in the WPS. 

China’s relentless push for dominating adjacent waters has been facilitated by the lack of unity among its neighbors, particularly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); the unwillingness of major powers to risk confrontation with Beijing; the vagaries of international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), vis-à-vis disputed territories in international waters; and our inability to develop even a minimum deterrence capability. 

We can no longer afford any form of strategic complacency. It is time for bold and more decisive responses to Chinese creation of facts on the waters. For starters, we should fortify our position in areas we already control and double down on our alliances with like-minded countries. As one Japanese official recently put it, “We have to show China that it doesn’t own the [West Philippine] sea.” – Rappler.com


The author is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific.” He has written for and/or interviewed by Al Jazeera, BBC, Bloomberg, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, The Huffington Post, among other leading publications. He can be reached jrheydarian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Richeydarian.


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