July 27, 2012
High Stakes in South China Sea
by John Teo@http://www.nst.com.my
PHILIPPINE President Benigno Aquino III has been creating waves not just within his country but without as well. While the waves within — if they do not prove so overly disruptive as to be counter-productive – may be necessary, overdue and largely welcome by Filipinos, those without are a totally different matter.
For many weeks now, Manila has been caught in a debilitating stand-off with China over uninhabited rocky islets in the South China Sea. The Philippines is not alone in such disputes with China. Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam share similar disputes with China or each other.
In the case with Brunei, we have come to an understanding after rather protracted bilateral talks that allowed for what appears to be a win-win setting aside of overlapping claims in favour of joint exploration of whatever resources may lie undersea, believed to be mostly hydrocarbons.
Beijing is known to favour settling its maritime disputes with the ASEAN states in a similar, bilateral fashion. While individual ASEAN states may be understandably wary of entering bilateral talks with the budding Asian superpower over the disputes, there has been no ASEAN consensus so far about taking up the disputes with Beijing as a united grouping.
This much is clear from the almost deafening silence of the Philippines’ ASEAN neighbours in its current stand-off with China, despite the Filipinos’ plea for ASEAN nations to take a stand. There may in fact be some understandable resentment on the part of some ASEAN states over the Philippines choosing to confront Beijing at this stage before ASEAN arrives at a collective stance.
The Philippines may want to portray itself as the plucky little guy standing up to the regional bully. This stance may resonate well domestically but smacks of dangerous brinksmanship.As things stand, the idea of Beijing as bully may be more threat than reality.
While regional states obviously need to be wary not just of Beijing’s intentions and designs but those of all big powers towards the region, it is to no one’s benefit to provoke Beijing into making its intentions clear.
Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea may be questionable, but the very act of staking them does not in and of itself make Beijing out to be a bully. It will be noted, after all, that Taiwan, otherwise still officially the Republic of China, makes the same claims as China. There is at least equal if not greater evidence of China as generous benefactor to weaker states than otherwise.
However, China’s growing global heft definitely marks it out to be a potential bully and it must concern Beijing that regional states are prone to be mistrustful of its intentions and designs.
That said, the Philippines’ stance does seem needlessly disruptive.Aquino recently returned from a trip to Washington having secured fresh commitments of American support — crucially, in shoring up the Philippines’ military — as well as a joint reaffirmation of navigational safety in the South China Sea.
That reiteration of safe passage through the sea may be viewed in Beijing as superfluous and therefore a further provocation. China, after all, has built itself up as a rising economic power and is only now beefing up its own military and defence capabilities.
No country, least of all the US (at least officially), begrudges Beijing a military commensurate with its growing status and, therefore, its added responsibilities, particularly to its own people and burgeoning global interests.
Moreover, China has developed to become the largest trading nation on earth and if any nation has the greater interest in ensuring safe passage through all seas, it clearly is China.
What will be a threat to all nations with peaceful intentions is the unintended escalation of disputes to such an extent that any accidental miscalculation on the part of any party leads to armed conflict.
China is famously known to be playing very long-term games. It seems to have time on its side. If current projections hold, it will eclipse the US as the world’s largest economy in the not-too-distant future. What that does to either of the two big powers is anybody’s guess.
The wisest course for all regional states would appear to be to postpone for as long as possible any likelihood of any of them having to choose between either of the two.