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Monday, 1 July 2013

Time to reset East Asia

It has been a week full of dire implications for regional relations, even if nobody wants to admit it.

WHAT do Philippine-US joint naval exercises, a visiting Japanese Defence Minister and the World Peace Forum at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University in recent days have in common?

Answer: disputed territorial claims in East Asian waters. More specifically, these events during the week have resonated particularly with disputed maritime claims involving China.

Although each of these occasions has had motivations of its own, maritime disputes as a recurrent theme makes them seem larger than intended. That illustrates the pervasive nature of territorial disputes in the region.

When politicians and diplomats wish to make a point beyond a standard statement, they look for opportune moments on which to frame that point. The week had provided three occasions for that: joint war games, a minister’s visit(s) and an international peace conference.

These events need not have anything to do with each other, even if they all kicked off on Thursday. But as it happened, the common theme linking them was unmistakable.

This year’s two-day World Peace Forum (WPF) at Tsinghua is only the second in an annual series, and already it is more ambitious in scope and attendance than last year’s. Among the assembled scholars and public intellectuals were a virtual who’s who of former national leaders from around the world.

The WPF is a joint initiative between Tsinghua University and the China Institute of Foreign Affairs. It is described as China’s first high-level security forum for in-depth discussion on regional security issues.

Tsinghua, of course, is the alma mater of several Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping. The WPF’s Secretary-General is prominent Chinese academic and internationally respected intellectual Yan Xuetong, who is articulate in both Chinese and English.

Given its brief but impressive record, there is little doubt that the WPF will establish itself as the region’s leading security forum. This year’s theme was said to span innovative approaches to, and possible areas for, international security cooperation.

But however laudable these aims may be, they would have to wait. The value-added in the intended theme would have to come privately from researchers and scholars in due course, because the professional politicians and diplomats have so far produced little that is new.

Being from the host country, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice-President Li Yuanchao were among the few serving officials in attendance. They combined reassurances of China’s commitment to peace with firm warnings against rival claims to disputed territories.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, a delegate at the forum, caused a stir in Japan with a post-conference Beijing interview quoting him as saying that China’s disputed territorial claims were “inevitable”.

China and Japan remain locked in dispute over the Pinnacle Islands, which China calls Diaoyu and Japan calls Senkaku.

Hatoyama later clarified his comments by saying that he meant China’s claims were “understandable”, adding that he “won’t deny China’s position”. That only added to the furore in Tokyo.

Hatoyama is known to favour a more Asia-centric Japan over the country’s post-war Western-centrism. China has in turn looked to him to facilitate closer bilateral relations.

At the same time, Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera visited Manila for two-day talks on regional security issues. The focus of discussions was understood to be China’s recent assertiveness in regional waters.

Besides the Spratly Islands, the Philippines and China both claim sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines calls Panatag Shoal and China calls Huangyan Island. That produced a months-long standoff between the two claimants last year, which technically remains today.

Philippine warships withdrew one year ago this month owing to bad weather, but Chinese naval vessels remained. The standoff has not been resolved and still appears to defy resolution.

Both countries also claim Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines calls Ayungin Shoal and China calls Ren’ai Jiao. Even the names of seas are in disagreement: the Philippines has taken to calling the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea.

Onodera’s visit can be seen in context when viewed together with events that follow. He continued his travel to Hawaii to discuss regional security issues with his US counterparts this weekend, as Asean Foreign Ministers met in Brunei last week

Meanwhile, the Philippines also launched joint military exercises with the US on Thursday. The six-day Carat (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) 2013 war games cover a wide range of contingency functions, including interoperability between the Philippine and US navies.

Manila is also considering allowing the US “and other allies” (principally, Japan) to use Philippine bases in case of military challenges over disputed territory from China.

The Philippine Constitution has since 1987 barred foreign military bases on Philippine soil. This includes the military bases of countries considered allies.

However, the Philippine government is currently tweaking all three words “foreign”, “military” and “bases” to allow what would functionally amount to foreign military bases in the country.

Foreign military forces may be permitted to enter Philippine military facilities with their vessels, equipment (including weapons and weapon systems) and troops. They may be permitted to stay for the duration of their needs, which cover repair, refuelling and re-supply.

There are no time limits for fulfilling these needs. So, in practice, ally countries may station their forces in the Philippines indefinitely.

In addition, US military forces including aircraft carrier fleets would be able to remain in and operate from adjacent waters. The option of foreign military “places, not bases” would continue, plus the use of “Philippine” military bases in the Philippines.

For Manila, all that would serve as a deterrent against any untoward challenges from Beijing. Neither the Philippines nor anyone else can imagine a straightforward one-on-one faceoff with China for any extended period, given the huge disparities between the two countries’ capacities.

But while on the surface tugging at big brother’s (US’ and/or Japan’s) coat sleeves may seem like a solution for Philippine policymakers, there are some serious problems with such an assumption.

How far can the Philippines expect a major power acting as patron to come to its aid as and when needed? Such a service, even if available, will exact a price that Filipinos may not find acceptable.

To what extent can such an obliging major power, if one exists, restrain provocative Philippine actions that invite retaliation? Would Manila be prepared to submit to such restraints?

And when push comes to shove, would any major power back Philippine actions to the hilt against China? The US and Japan have important economic and other ties to China they would be loath to jeopardise for a third party.

Adding to Manila’s anxieties is the Philippine uniqueness of having borders that are more amorphous and disputed than virtually any other country. It is something Philippine officials “understand” more than they care to admit, given the implications for foreign relations.

The 1987 Constitution tries to address the issue by limiting national territory to areas currently occupied by the national administration. But that has not stopped different interpretations of what constitutes “current occupation”.

Philippine officials are still working out the terms of an “access agreement” for its military bases with big-power allies, which would be consistent with the Constitution and the existing Visiting Forces Agreement. To be workable, the new agreement would also have to be consistent with reality.


> Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at ISIS (Institute of Strategic and International Studies) Malaysia.
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