The bully in Asia

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

The Philippines last December again had to contend with Chinese naval intrusions in the Philippine territories within the Spratly group of islands, specifically the Escoba Shoal. This after multi-country agreements or understandings had been reached that any movement within the West Philippine Sea shall be peaceful and in conformity with international law.

The incident is but another in a long line of unapologetic Chinese intrusions in our territory, the most recent one prior to this being their incursion near Reed Bank. That time, Chinese boats brazenly moved against a Philippine ship, apparently with the intention of ramming it. The Philippine military properly and rightfully deployed two warplanes, one an OV-10 bomber, causing the Chinese boats to retreat. It must be emphasized that such happened within what is clearly Philippine territory.

All this merely goes to show the need to review our policy vis-a-vis China. This is simply a country whose government cannot be trusted. And insists with its inane stance of being Asia’s resident bully: aside from intrusions into Philippine territory, there’s the Senkaku incident, where a Chinese trawler intentionally rammed itself into Japanese coast guard ships while within disputed waters. Also, as reported by the Wall Street Journal (China’s aggressive new diplomacy, 1 October 2010), when: “... fleets of Chinese fishing ships illegally entered Indonesian waters in May and June, leading to a stand-off with Indonesian patrol craft that ended when one of the Chinese vessels aimed a large-caliber gun at the Indonesians. xxx China’s new assertiveness is more than a matter of provocation and petulance. It’s also a new state of mind.... when Hillary Clinton took the side of Vietnam in mildly pushing back against China’s claims to the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi could barely contain his anger. Calling the Secretary of State’s remarks ‘an attack on China,’ he lectured that ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’”

The problem is exacerbated considerably because China’s government can’t even be relied on to be rational. Just last December, Chinese officials blasted US Representative to Hong Kong, Consul General Stephen Young, for “interfering in local politics” and which could lead to him “being declared persona non grata and expelled.” And what did Young say to deserve such attacks? As reported by the Wall Street Journal (Paranoia in Hong Kong, 23 December 2011), all he did was that he “praised Hong Kong’s fulfillment of Deng Xiaoping’s promise of ‘one country, two systems’ and its progress toward democratization.” Weird.

And this is worsened by US President Barack Obama’s seeming confusion on how to deal with the Chinese. While indeed proclaiming last week that new US military strategy is to put focus on the Asia-Pacific (a statement that naturally drew hysteria from the Chinese government), President Obama nevertheless last October turned down Taiwan’s repeated requests for F-16 fighters jets. As reported by Daniel Sayani: “Experts believe that the primary reason why the Obama administration refused to sell Taiwan the new F-16s is its desire to improve relations with communist China. Rather than viewing China’s growth as a threat to American interests, Obama stated on January 19, 2011 (at a White House press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao), ‘We welcome China’s rise. I absolutely believe that China’s peaceful rise is good for the world, and it’s good for America,’ arguing that the country’s economic progress benefits the United States and opens the door to greater international stability and humanitarian progress.”

This declaration, made against the interests of a fellow democratic country that is Taiwan and contrary to calls by Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives, is pretty unrealistic. And quite disconcerting for countries in the Pacific area such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which possess territories that China is attempting to unlawfully grab. It also smacks of shortsightedness, placing the burden of defending Taiwan, in case of a future Chinese attack, on the next US president.

In this context, the Obama administration’s apparent plans to push US Senate approval of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is ill-advised and again indicative of the US government’s wanting it both ways (whatever that may be or means) with regard to the Asia-Pacific. As cogently put by former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton: “China wants to deny American access so it can have its way with its neighbors,” while what “Washington [should want] is to do what it has done since it became a maritime power: use its Navy to enhance international peace and security, deter conflict, reassure allies, and collect intelligence.”

We should clearly maintain our diplomatic efforts, particularly encouraging the maintenance of a balance of power in Asia. We should also insist on our legal rights. And I reiterate: the best way to deal with China in the meantime is to simply implement our laws, particularly on smuggling and immigration.