Mutual respect, mutual benefit
Just when the Philippines and China appear to be trying to ease tension over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a state-of-the-art US attack submarine suddenly surfaces in the former Subic US Naval Base in Zambales, less than 200 kilometers away from the contentious maritime area.
The unmistakable message from the US is that like it or not, the Chinese and Philippine governments will have to take into serious account US interests in the East Asia region, and these are not necessarily consistent with the mutual interests of China and the Philippines.
The Aquino government had initially denied the unannounced presence of the submarine or feigned ignorance of its arrival. Then, when forced to admit its presence, the lame explanation and obvious lie was that this was a “regular port call" much like those of other vessels from other countries. Are they saying that warships from other countries also regularly make port calls at Subic or other Philippine ports?
At the very least, it could reignite the controversy over the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement (MLSA), and give credence to the view that the Philippines is in fact yielding its sovereignty to the US through the unhampered entry, stationing and exit of US forces and warships anywhere on the archipelago even as it adamantly protests and tries to fend off alleged Chinese incursions into its territorial waters.
The Aquino regime had earlier set off on the wrong foot when it called on Big Brother US for help, invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty, and bringing up the issue in the 2+2 defense & foreign affairs ministerial meeting. The US, as expected, gave only a vague response citing the two countries’ long-standing alliance and so forth and so on but not giving the categorical commitment to rush to the Philippines’ aid in case of an armed confrontation with China.
The evident resort to the "US card" comes in form of the recently concluded Balikatan war exercises that included a mock retaking of an oil rig supposedly seized by terrorists that was held close to the disputed maritime area; the “2+2” meeting in the US; and now the port call of the USS North Carolina in Subic Bay, an attack submarine considered one of the “stealthiest, most technologically advanced” in the world. Such types of submarines are capable of carrying and launching Tomahawk missiles with nuclear warheads, a possibility that the Philippine government cannot determine or verify as provided for in the VFA, despite a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons.
It points to the Aquino administration taking the wrong, dangerous, self-contradictory and ultimately counterproductive tack of inviting and even welcoming US intervention to ward off the Chinese.
Since it is clear by now, even to the most avid believers of US protection, that the Philippines has everything to lose from a military confrontation, it stands to reason that a diplomatic settlement based on international law is the most logical, imperative and desirable approach to the impasse.
So far, the public has been made to believe that in this international legal arena, the Philippine position is superior to that of China’s. The government position that gets repeated in news reports seems simple enough: the disputed shoal is 124 nautical miles from the nearest base point in Zambales while it is a far distance of 550 nm from the nearest Chinese province; ergo going by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it is clearly part of the 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.
Yet scholarly position papers available on the internet have pointed to the frailty or weakness of the legal position of the Philippines regarding sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal notwithstanding greater proximity to our coastline and despite the government’s apparent readiness to bring the issue to international arbitration versus China's rejection of the move.
A paper that came out in an on-line publication of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a non-government and non-profit organization based in Hong Kong, “The Huangyan Island Standoff: A Review of the Claims and the Prospects for the Future” points out that “‘geographic proximity’ has long been dismissed by international law and practice as the principle of the solution of territory ownership.” On the other hand, China bases its territorial claims on “(f)irst discovery, consistent administration, historical rights of fishing... all recognized as valid in international law to support territory claims.”
Moreover, the paper debunks the Philippine argument that Scarborough shoal is located within the Philippine (EEZ) and therefore it retains sovereignty over the area. “It’s a false interpretation of UNCLOS. The basic principle of the law of the sea is ‘the land dominates the sea’, meaning it is the territorial sovereignty of coastal states that generates their sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the EEZ and over the continental shelf. The fact that Huangyan Island is within 200 nm off the Philippine coastline does not naturally give the Philippines sovereignty over it or make it part of its territory.”
The papers also argue that it was only in 1997 that the Philippine government staked a claim on the shoals, whereas these were not included in Philippine maps such the 1898 Spanish-American Treaty of Paris and subsequent official Philippine maps.
At the minimum, objectively speaking, sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal is in contention by three countries China, Taiwan and the Philippines even though all three will insist, from their own point of view, that their claim is the rightful or superior one.
Given this fact, would it not be the better part of political wisdom, more so statesmanship, for the Aquino administration to seriously study and issue a rational and sober reply to the points raised by China rather than brandish the Philippines military alliance with the US to act as a counterfoil to China’s military strength and to make up for the Philippines’ military inferiority?
It also serves no purpose to keep whipping up pseudo-patriotic and ultra-nationalist sentiments against China and things Chinese. A sorry attempt by Filipino-Americans unabashedly in support of the Aquino administration and the pro-Aquino Akbayan party list to mobilize tens of thousands in coordinated protests at China’s embassies in the US, Philippines and elsewhere only managed to bring out scores of protesters, provoke counter-protests by Chinese nationals, generate apparently economic retaliatory sanctions by China and undermine whatever attempts of the Philippine government to to tone down the rhetoric and defuse the situation.
The bottom line of all these is that national sovereignty and security from external threats should be based on an independent foreign policy - one that takes Pihilippine national interest primarily into account, is not dependent on any foreign power and is grounded on the principles of mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence (1955 Bandung Conference). #
Published in Business World
18-19 May 2012