China's Crimean act

my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

This isn’t the first time someone is bringing this up, but what with everyone either looking at Russia’s venture into the Crimea or the whereabouts of the missing Malaysian airplane, China has been engaging in mischief (pun not intended) in the Pacific. Admittedly though and interestingly enough, the events in Ukraine do present repercussions to our part of the world.

As Donald K. Emmerson ("Eyes on Crimea, China makes its move"; Asia Times, March 17) reported: "On March 9, 2014, China made a move to end the status quo at the shoal. For the first time in 15 years, Beijing stopped Manila from delivering supplies to the Sierra Madre. The Chinese Coast Guard forced two Philippine ships to turn away."

And Chinese aggression does not end with the Philippines. Zachary Keck ("China’s Newest Maritime Dispute"; The Diplomat, March 20) observed: "China’s new drawing of its nine-dash line includes waters that Jakarta claims as its own. China has claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters. This arbitrary claim is related to the dispute over Spratly and Paracel Islands between China and the Philippines. This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters."

All the foregoing makes Russia’s actions seem benevolent. As Emmerson pointed out, China’s "repeated harassment of Vietnamese and Philippine ships; the assertive moves of its warships around James Shoal, which Malaysia claims, including firing weapons into the air; its announcement that any non-Chinese citizens or vessels must first ask China’s permission to fish in a zone that covers more than half of the South China Sea... and now its expulsion of Philippine supply vessels from Second Thomas Shoal. The long and ongoing record of unilateral Chinese assertions or aggressions in the South and East China Sea no longer leaves room for doubt as to Beijing’s intention."

Indeed, the question really is not "What does China want?" That much is clear. The question is: What are countries prepared to do to maintain a just peace?

And this is where the events in Ukraine become relevant to us. Because sadly, the US’ pathetically effete response to Russia’s territorial grab (following US President Obama’s serious bungling of Benghazi and the "red line" in Syria) is signaling a weakness inviting aggressive, non-international rule of law-minded countries to go nuts.

The Philippines can get a little bit of help from ASEAN. But the crucial word there is "little." In the end, ASEAN will do what it does best and that is talk. Since 2002, ASEAN members and China entered into the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, of which an implementing Joint Working Group have been meeting regularly, to no practical result. And all this time, China has been relentlessly solidifying physically its control of the disputed waters without any sign of compromise.

Little succor should also be expected from international tribunals. For the simplest of reasons. Even though the composition of the five-member arbitral tribunal that will hear the Philippine complaint is now complete and despite the ruling of the International Court of Justice in Nicaragua v Colombia, as Sourabh Gupta wrote in the EastAsia Forum ("The whole nine dashes and why the Philippines’ arbitration case against China is a bad idea"; July 28, 2013):

• "First, the Notification cannot bind China because China has optionally excluded itself from compulsory arbitration under UNCLOS;
• Second, despite what the Philippines argues, all good faith avenues to peaceful dispute resolution, including provisional arrangements of a practical nature (UNCLOS Articles 74 and 83), have not been exhausted;
• Finally, China’s nine-dash line has no international legal personality and hence cannot be consistent with or contrary to the letter of UNCLOS."

Of course, no one wants a war. But, as Michael Rubin states in his book Dancing with the Devil, the only thing countries like China will respond to is the willingness to use military force. Obama’s apologetic foreign policy, rather than effecting peace, is actually contributing to the likelihood of war. So, for the Philippines, until 2016 arrives, we can only hope that US President Obama gets a better grip on reality.

In the meantime, what can the Philippines do? To reiterate something I wrote back in 2009, the best way to deal with China and protect our national interests is by simply implementing our laws.

Firstly, it would be good to really clamp down on smuggling, including "technical smuggling." Another would be stricter application of our immigration rules. Reports of foreigners surreptitiously entering our country should be investigated and prosecuted vigorously. Considering the rising unemployment in our country, to stop the entry of illegal aliens should be a priority. Finally, our foreign and trade relations should be done not only with the view to financial gain but also to advancing human rights, labor standards, environmental protection, and democratic values. The last for the simple reason because that’s what we declared our country stands for.