Power play in the South China Sea

It’s been called many things: “death by a thousand cuts,” when each slice by the knife seems inconsequential until you get so many, you die; “salami slicing,” when you take it away slice by slice until it’s all gone; or “the cabbage strategy,” when an area is slowly surrounded by “leaves” like a fishing boat then a coast guard vessel – until it’s wrapped in layers like a cabbage.

This is what China is doing in the West Philippine Sea, aggressively taking territory claimed by the Philippines, starting with Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. That's only one part of the South China Sea, one of the busiest maritime areas in the world through which $5 trillion in trade passes every year.  

“The Philippines Coast Guard cutter went out, and China said you militarized this,” said Ernest Bower, senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asian Studies at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Then they responded with overwhelming force, and now they occupy Scarborough Shoal.”

It's a tactical mistake Bower claims the Philippines made, Japan avoided, and the United States must be careful of.

'Creeping invasion' and what PH can lose

The territory China claims is also being contested by Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam, which has been most vocal and aggressive in pushing back after China brought a $1 billion deep-sea oil-exploration rig with some 80 ships and at least seven navy vessels near Vietnam’s shores.

“The Chinese have been undertaking a creeping invasion of the South China Sea,” Senior Justice Antonio Carpio of the Philippine Supreme Court told Rappler in a rare  interview. “They have been very successful in this.”

For the first time this week, China comes under the microscope in an international legal process initiated by the Philippines. In 2013, Manila filed a case to ask for a ruling on its right to waters in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) laid out under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“The issue here is whether the Philippines will keep 80% of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea or we lose it to China,” said Carpio, who outlined its economic impact in terms of fishing, maritime industry and oil and gas reserves.

 

Carpio, who's part of the delegation arguing the case in the Hague from July 7-13, said he felt certain the Philippines would win, but others point out that any decision that favors the Philippines may not mean much because there’s no UN body to enforce it. Still, Carpio pointed to legal precedence, citing at least two cases, including Nicaragua vs the United States. He said time and and concerted international pressure would force compliance. 

“It could take maybe ten years,” he said.  “We should steel ourselves that this will be a long struggle.”

Roots of China's aggression

China’s aggressive actions may have been fueled by growing confidence in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. That crippled many Western economies, including the United States. China remained relatively unscathed and now owns nearly $1.3 trillion of US debt.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he spoke of a more inclusive American approach to power. Then came challenges that seemed to show a less decisive America: like the false line in the sand over the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the inability to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea, the main flashpoint in the Ukraine crisis. To China, that signaled weakness.

Xi Jinping and his new government took office in November, 2012, and China’s expansionist moves accelerated. 

Xi and Putin alike

“Xi Jinping seems more aggressive than Deng Xiaoping,” I told Justice Carpio, referring to China's strong-man ruler from 1978 to 1992. Deng, who supported the use of tanks and guns in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when hundreds were allegedly killed, ruled with an iron fist.  In his last five years, he imprisoned or exiled nearly all of China's dissidents.

“He’s a different guy,” Carpio answered.  “He’s like Putin.”

“What if what happens with the Ukraine happens with China?” I asked. “Hillary Clinton said after NATO expanded, Putin felt like Russia was being hemmed in.  What if after the Philippines wins the case, China feels like the world is ganging up against it and comes out punching even more aggressively?”

“Both President Putin and Xi are out to change the world order,” answered Carpio. “You cannot settle a territorial dispute through the use of force. You cannot acquire territory by using force. That is banned. Crimea – it’s by force, and here, they’re seizing territories in the South China Sea by force.  We have to stop this because the moment that is embedded – that a country can settle a territorial dispute by force – then we will return to World War I and World War II.”

China is reclaiming land in the South China Sea – creating seven artificial islands – that will allow its navy to impose its power over much weaker contending states.

“China has excised the maritime heart out of Southeast Asia,” said Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.  “This is the new normal.”

“I think the Americans have realized that the Chinese see weakness when they look at Washington,” said Bower. “There is a sense, I think in Washington, that they’ve got to demonstrate some more serious levels of resolve.”

That's part of what makes the South China Sea one of the world's potential flashpoints for conflict.

2016 elections: PH, US, Taiwan

Politics, security and economics go hand-in-hand, and 2016 will see crucial elections in Taiwan, the Philippines and the United States.  In Taiwan, analysts say the frontrunner may exacerbate tensions with China.  

In the United States, President Obama ends 2 terms in office. More than a dozen Republicans and at least 5 Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, have announced they're running for their party's 2016 presidential nomination.

"I think you'll find a deeper understanding of what you need to do to convince China that the Americans are going to be part of Asia for the long term," said Bower, who believes strength must balance with "geopolitical practicality" and will make "room for other leaders to rise" within accepted international standards.

In the Philippines, the Aquino administration brought the case to the United Nations, but that government ends in 2016.  Some say China's taking a wait and see attitude hoping his successor will change the country's policy.

"The next president will take over in June of 2016," Justice Carpio countered. "The case before the UNCLOS will be decided by March of 2016."

This week, the world watches that legal process: does the UN tribunal have jurisdiction to try the case, which China has questioned. Carpio says that should be settled by August or September, followed by a final decision by March, 2016. 

The world is watching.

It's the next step in the geopolitical calculus of power. – Rappler.com

Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.

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