Last of 3 parts
FOLLOWING is a slightly edited discussion on the third of three initiatives I had proposed in my 2022 book “Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception,” which I think would send us on the path of resolving our disputes with China and other claimants in the South China Sea. Time to move on.
‘Debacle’ excerpt starts here:
The overarching fallacy that underpins the US-crafted propaganda on our territorial and maritime-area disputes with the Chinese is the dogma that China is the world’s new Evil Empire (after the collapsed Soviet Union) intent on grabbing the entire South China Sea (SCS) and transforming its littoral states into vassals. This is obviously derived from the view during the Cold War that the ruling Communist Party intended to export Marxist-Leninist revolution to all countries, first in Asia and then the world.
This view has been totally debunked by nearly all mainstream scholars. The Chinese Communist Party no longer sees its legitimacy as based on its adherence to Marxism-Leninism but on two things.
First is its success in developing China’s economy and lifting its huge population out of poverty. Second is its capability in upholding China’s dignity in the international community of nations and developing its citizens’ sense of nationalism. This is especially important for China because of its “century of humiliation” that is deeply etched in its national consciousness, when the once powerful empire was invaded by Western powers and Japan, swaths of its territory grabbed and hundreds of thousands of its citizens killed.
These two Chinese imperatives explain much of China’s behavior in the SCS in the post-war period. It shirked away from enforcing its claims of sovereignty in this period and was totally focused on developing its economy. It did nothing in the SCS when the Philippines and Vietnam occupied the best “properties” there — i.e., islands and islets — in the 1970s. This is most probably because of its calculation that the unchallenged hegemon at that time, the US, would go to the aid of these two nations, and then use the excuse of Chinese “aggression” to wage war against it — when it was still militarily and economically weak.
China’s first aggressive move into the SCS was when it fought the Vietnamese in 1974 to drive them out of the Paracels, which is just 300 kilometers away from the nearest Chinese coast. (The Philippines has no claims in the Paracels archipelago.) While the precise sequence of events — who fired the first shot — is controversial, it has been undisputed that China’s aggressiveness was due to Vietnam’s awarding of several oil exploration contracts to Shell, Exxon, Mobil and Canadian oil firms in the western edges of the Spratlys the year before, which China claims is part of its sovereign Nansha Archipelago.
In this case, China put as priority its need to assert its sovereignty and advance its nationalist credentials.
It would be 14 years later, in 1988, that China would move into the Spratlys (Kalayaan Island Group) to occupy the seven reefs, to which was added only one reef, Mischief, in 1994. A 1998 article in the US Naval War College by Michael Studeman (who would become a US Navy rear admiral with his last posting as director of the Office of Naval Intelligence) explained what drove the PRC to occupy the reef, its first move into the Spratlys after seven years: “Joint development talks between China and the Philippines over gas-rich Reed Bank broke down in early 1994; in May, Manila decided to grant a six-month oil exploration permit to Alcorn Petroleum and Minerals.” Manila hoped the contract would remain a secret, but news of the collaboration soon leaked. Beijing swiftly issued a statement reasserting its sovereignty over the area covered by the license and ignored Manila’s belated invitation to become a partner in the project. Manila backpedaled on the diplomatic front for weeks, but the damage had been done. By secretly licensing an exploration effort the Philippines had appeared to engage in unilateral efforts to exploit the natural resources of the Spratlys. Beijing decided to build a facility in Mischief Reef, to make sure it could keep tabs on Reed Bank, the remaining unoccupied feature of the submerged Reed Bank. It was also at this time that China developed its People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) capability to transport troops and material to the Spratly archipelago, which was a thousand kilometers away from its nearest port in Hainan. However, the undisputed trigger for China’s earlier move to the Spratlys was Vietnam’s occupation first of Barque Canada Reef in April 1987, followed by 10 other reefs in 1988. With Malaysia also occupying Swallow Reef in 1983 and Ardasier Reef in 1986, China’s leadership would have been condemned by its citizens for just sitting idly by as the SCS was occupied by smaller countries. The Vietnamese and Chinese navies also clashed at Johnson Reef in March 1988, which gave the latter the excuse for its occupation of the reefs. These two major waves of occupation point to a clear pattern of Chinese behavior in the SCS, which was again demonstrated in its takeover of Scarborough in 2012.
Whether it is merely a clever strategy or not, the pattern is that China moves decisively to assert its claims in the SCS when it is provoked to do so. If it does not, the Chinese Communist Party’s credibility in upholding the country’s sovereignty will be dented. The same pattern was demonstrated in China’s takeover of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, after Aquino 3rd foolishly sent a warship to assert our sovereign claims in the area. This was the same action-reaction pattern when the Philippines filed the arbitration suit in 2013. China reacted by spending at least $150 billion to transform its reefs into huge artificial islands. US propagandists, however, distort this Chinese behavior, and claim that it is China’s “creeping invasion” of the SCS or its “cabbage strategy.” Filipinos cannot just blindly embrace the US’ anti-China ideology which is at the core of its policies in Asia. Current US President Joe Biden expressed this: China “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system. (Read: the US).” Indeed, the Philippines — a former US colony with its elites almost totally Americanized — is the only country in the world where its anti-China hysteria, first whipped up during the Aquino 3rd regime, follows closely that of the US. (See The Diplomat’s February 2023 article, “Anti-China rhetoric is off the charts in Western media.”)
That is a remnant of the 1950s Cold War thinking when the US and the West saw the communist-ruled Soviet Union and China as wanting to replace their “open” system (read: democratic) with the communist (read: “closed”) ones in their countries.
But that era has long gone: The USSR has imploded, and all its member-nations are now under capitalist systems. While the Chinese leadership officially professes loyalty to its Marxist ideology, it practices not just “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but even perhaps more so, “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” Following its ruling elite’s worldview, most American books and media coverage on the SCS dispute disseminate the propaganda that it is essentially a struggle for power and supremacy between the two superpowers and precludes a peaceful resolution. The dramatic fiction of a Philippine David fighting the Chinese Goliath to eventually win has indeed been swallowed hook, line and sinker by small but noisy minds here.
If the veil of deception woven by the US is torn asunder, the solution to the SCS dispute is so crystal clear: Accept the status quo, put aside the disputes, which as China’s revered leader Deng Xiaoping claimed several decades ago will be solved by smarter generations.
Even Gregory Poling, one of America’s top scholars on the SCS disputes who runs America’s main propaganda think-tank euphemistically called the Asian Maritime Transparency Institute, wrote in his 2022 book on the disputes “On Dangerous Grounds: America’s Century in the South China Sea”: “The most likely endgame in the Spratlys is recognition of the current status quo. Southwest Cay* is the only island to ever change hands between two of the modern claimants. In all other cases, the one who got there first (excepting Japan and France, which publicly ceded or quietly abandoned their claims, respectively) is still within control. Scarborough is best left unoccupied, as it has always been, with a cooperative management scheme for traditional fishing.” [*The Philippines since 1971 occupied what we call Pugad Island until the Vietnamese were able to take it over in 1975 by fooling the troops there to leave for a party in a nearby island, only to return the next morning (to find themselves) facing Vietnamese guns trained on them and their landing boats.] The US Navy’s think tank put forward the same idea many years back as follows: “‘The reality on the ground is that China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines all permanently occupy features in the Spratlys group; some have done so for over 50 years.” These countries may well claim that the length of such occupation strengthens their sovereignty claims, as effective occupation (effectivités) is viewed in international law as one means of acquiring sovereignty over a particular territory.
This is the implicit policy of the other claimants, even by the biggest, Vietnam, whose claim to ownership of features in the Spratlys most scholars conclude to be the strongest. In contrast to what we have been doing since the Aquino 3rd regime, the Vietnamese have not been noisily trying to exert — except for a few instances — their sovereignty or sovereign rights in the areas that China occupied. However, by being quiet in its claims, Vietnam has profited immensely from its trade with and investment inflows from China.
If not for the US pulling the wool over our eyes on the nature of the SCS disputes, China would appear to us not as a threat but dominantly as a huge investment area and trade market of 1.4 billion people, so physically closer to us than the American superpower. We are the only Asian nation so openly belligerent with China, and such an unabashed vassal to the US. Do we really want to exclude ourselves from the world’s biggest market? Indeed, several of our Chinese Filipino billionaires many years back realized what China is. Billionaire Carlos Chan’s Oishi Shanghaojia is the biggest instant noodle and snack food manufacturer in China. Tony Tan Caktiong’s Jollibee has 424 “Yonghe King” branches, 58 “Hong Zhuang Yuan” and 18 “Tim Ho Wan” outlets in China. The Sy conglomerate has its second-biggest mall in Tianjin, the seventh of its malls in China. Why, we can even leverage, if we know how, our territorial and maritime-area disputes with China for trade preferences and official aid, that will help jumpstart — finally — our leap into the World Bank’s category as an upper-middle-income country, from the lower-middle-income class we have been stuck in for 35 years.
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