• Reading time:13 mins read

UP professor Nemenzo on the South China Sea disputes

You are currently viewing UP professor Nemenzo on the South China Sea disputes

I AM devoting this column and the next to an article on the South China Sea (SCS) disputes by Dr. Francisco “Dodong” Nemenzo, professor emeritus in political science at the University of the Philippines (UP).

Nemenzo in my view is the preeminent political scientist of his generation and the next. It is sad though, and a testament to the poor quality of UP as an academic institution, that very few if any of his students and proteges have inherited his intellectual brilliance.

He was the 18th president of the UP (from 1999-2000), third chancellor of the UP Visayas, faculty regent and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Diliman. At 85 years old, Nemenzo obviously has an analytical mind that cuts through US propaganda.

I found this article being circulated in one of my chat groups, entitled “Fishing for Trouble in the South China Sea.” I agree with most of Nemenzo’s statements and analysis, except for two serious errors that I will discuss in my Monday column.

Still though, while this article was written back in 2012, its framework contradicts the dominant anti-China view and should be read by Filipinos seeking the truth on the SCS disputes and refusing to be brainwashed by US propaganda.

Nemenzo article:

Lest I sound unpatriotic for striking a discordant note in a strident anti-China chorus, let me clarify what I understand by patriotism. It simply means standing for the national interest. This is not the same as supporting our government’s foreign policy even when it is wrong.

Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s troops occupy Pag-asa and five other islands in 1970 to 1971 after learning that oil exploration firms that the nearby Reed Bank had substantial natural gas deposits. Marcos would formally annex the Spratly Islands only in 1978 through a presidential decree. FROM THE AUTHOR’S BOOK, ‘DEBACLE: THE AQUINO REGIME’S SCARBOROUGH FIASCO AND THE SOUTH CHINA SEA ARBITRATION DECEPTION’

I consider China’s claim to own 90 percent of the South China Sea as preposterous. I agree that we should defend the islands we now occupy. And if we can afford it without begging for US intervention, we should fortify the ones we claim but have left unguarded.

What I deplore is the mishandling of our relations with China and our traditional reliance on the United States for our own security. Demonizing China and inciting jingoism among our people will only encourage the hardliners in the Chinese leadership and provoke the People’s Liberation Army to seize what we are too weak to defend, as happened in Scarborough.


The South China Sea covers an area of 3.5 million square kilometers where more than 250 islets, shoals, atolls, cays, reefs and sandbars are clustered in two archipelagos. The Paracels are contested by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Spratlys are likewise claimed by the three, but parts are claimed also by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. These islands are small, and most remain uninhabited; many are submerged at high tide. None is capable of sustaining human life, unless basic necessities are supplied from outside.

These geographic formations were ignored until 1968 when China’s Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources stumbled upon traces of petroleum and natural gas. The Chinese survey estimated the oil deposit at 17.7 billion tons. If validated, it will be the fourth-largest reserve bed in the world. But succeeding surveys conducted by other countries give lower estimates. The actual volume remains a subject of conjecture.

Yet the conjecture was enough to spur a flurry of island-grabbing.

Taiwan grabbed the largest island, consisting of 46 hectares. At least nine other islands are now occupied by China, 28 by Vietnam, 11 by the Philippines and seven by Malaysia. Brunei does not hold any of the islands it claims to own.

China and Taiwan cite ancient maps, chronicles of Chinese navigators and miscellaneous pieces of discarded Chinaware. On this basis, the Kuomintang government (before its expulsion from the mainland) drew an 11-dash line to demarcate China’s sovereign jurisdiction.

The communist government inherited the 11-dash line from the Kuomintang but reduced it to nine as a friendly gesture to Vietnam when Vietnam was in the forefront of the struggle against US imperialism. Now that China and Vietnam are no longer the best of friends, China infuriates Vietnam and the other claimants by insisting on the nine-dash line.

The nine-dash line is not recognized by the international community. Physical occupancy is the only ground for claiming sovereignty, not ancient maps, diaries and broken pottery. The Chinese cannot claim a territory just because they had been there centuries ago. Since they did not establish permanent settlements in these tiny islands, the Spratlys and the Paracels properly belong to the public domain or the “world’s commons.”

Bones of contention

What made these godforsaken islands a focus of international conflict today?

As noted earlier, the oil and gas reserves are still conjectural. What the numerous drillings have found so far is not worth a war. The Spratlys are rich in marine life; but a country need not own an area for its citizens to go there for fishing. Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese and Taiwanese fishermen have been fishing in the Spratlys since time immemorial without bothering about sovereign rights.

The main value of the South China Sea today is strategic. Some 300 ships cross it every day, making it the busiest sea-lane in the world; busier than the Suez and Panama canals combined. A mischievous nation that gains control of this maritime route can endow itself with authority to grant or deny passage to foreign ships.

China dreads the prospect of America policing the area. This is not a mere product of Chinese imagination. Still fresh in the memory of the Chinese is the US “containment” strategy during the Cold War when mainland China was encircled with hostile military bases, including Subic and Clark. At that time, however, the encirclement did not pose as grave a threat to China because its foreign trade then was negligible.

But China today is a major industrial power. Foreign trade is now crucial to its economic life. Its trade with Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe goes through the South China Sea. Freedom of navigation in this trade route is therefore a matter of survival for today’s China. Understandably, China regards Barack Obama’s strategy of “Pivot to Asia” a potential menace to its security. From Beijing’s perspective, “Pivot to Asia” is a revival of containment.


Who is aggressive?

Jingoistic Filipinos assert as indisputable truth that the current tensions in the South China Sea are due to China’s aggressiveness. But if we examine the sequence of events, China’s muscle flexing is a response to a US challenge, not the trigger of discord. China started demanding recognition of the nine-dash line only in 2009, a year after Obama unveiled the “Pivot to Asia” strategy. Previously, China showed willingness to compromise.

For example, China signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which recognized the exclusive economic zones of the coastal states around the South China Sea. (Incidentally, America refused to sign the Unclos.) Under this covenant, Scarborough and the Kalayaan islands fall within our exclusive economic zone. China did not question this until “Pivot to Asia” threatened its national security.

In 2002, China also signed an agreement with the 10 Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states that designated the South China Sea as a zone of peace and neutrality. In the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” — as the agreement was called — China and the Asean reaffirmed their commitment to Unclos and to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

It also provided that: “Pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of the disputes, the Parties concerned may explore or undertake cooperative activities. These may include the following: marine environmental protection; marine scientific research; safety of navigation and communication at sea; search and rescue operation; and combating transnational crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms.”

That was the best compromise arrangement while the overlapping territorial claims remain unresolved. While it was in effect, the Philippine Coast Guard occasionally apprehended Chinese poachers without engendering tension because, under the Declaration of Conduct, protection of the marine environment was acknowledged to be a common concern.

The Chinese Embassy would ask for extradition of their nationals, and we deported them without fuss or fanfare. Neither side raised the issue of sovereignty.


“Pivot to Asia” disturbed this fragile status quo. In the ensuing conflict, the real protagonists are China and the United States. To both of them, the core issue is control of the maritime route, not oil or gas.

Why is the United States, a country on the other side of the Pacific, meddling in the South China Sea?

To understand America’s concern, we should see the connection between “Pivot to Asia” and the financial crisis that hit America in 2008. Ironically, this crisis is the offshoot of America’s ambitious project of reshaping the world economy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, America and its G7 (Group of Seven) allies used the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to compel the Third World countries to abandon their protectionist policies, deregulate their economies and privatize state enterprises in order to create a global market where trade and investments can flow freely across national boundaries.

This “new world order” — as President Ronald Reagan triumphantly called it — prompted the US corporations to relocate their manufacturing to China, tapping the latter’s vast reservoir of cheap and docile labor. In turn, the state-owned Chinese banks acquired and amassed a huge bulk of US treasury bills. (As of last November, China’s holdings of US treasuries bills reached a record high of $1.317 trillion, according to the official website of the US Treasury Department).

This scheme backfired in 2008, the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. When Obama inherited the crisis, among the bold steps he took was to pressure China to devalue its currency and adopt other measures to bring manufacturing activities back home and absorb the swelling ranks of unemployed.

Taking advantage of America’s predicament, China stubbornly refused to cooperate. Irked by this brazen defiance of American power, Obama decided to enhance America’s diplomatic leverage by projecting its military might in China’s vicinity.

This is the root of “Pivot to Asia.” The US augmented its forces in Japan, Korea and Guam, and expanded military ties with Singapore and Australia. The Philippine-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) is part of this effort to coerce China.

At first, I thought EDCA was another imperialist imposition. But my initial suspicion proved wrong. According to the preamble of EDCA, it was the Philippines that invited the US to install military facilities inside our military camps. In other words, we volunteered to join the mess.


This is a brainchild of Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario who, since assuming office, has been advocating resumption of our “special relations” with the US that were damaged by the expulsion of US bases in 1991. He saw America’s renewed interest in Asia, especially its deepening conflict with China, as an opportunity to extract stronger American commitments.

Perceiving “Pivot to Asia” as a revival of containment, China responded by consolidating its positions in the Spratlys and the Paracels. It began fortifying the islands it controls and building military structures in unoccupied islands, some of which are claimed but not occupied by the Philippines. I do not see this as aggressiveness. China knows it cannot match America’s naval strength. It therefore wants to avoid direct confrontation.

But the Chinese find it convenient to find a US flunky they can bully around without drawing in the master. In other words, we are being used by China to show its opposition to “Pivot to Asia” without risking a direct confrontation with the US. And the second Aquino government, prompted by Secretary del Rosario, was foolish enough to get involved in the power play between two powerful nations.

Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao

X: @bobitiglao

My website: www.rigobertotiglao.com