Needed: Firm but Deft Diplomacy, not War Games
By Walden Bello
President Aquino is to be complemented for his firm defense of Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. At the same time, the standoff between the Philippine ship Gregorio del Pilar and Chinese naval boats at Scarborough Shoal (Panatag) over the activities of Chinese poachers within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone underlines the urgency of arriving at a diplomatic settlement on the territorial disputes in the area.
It emphasizes the critical importance of not endangering the diplomatic window for conflict-resolution by engaging in activities designed to project military might, such as the US-Philippine Balikatan military exercises that will take place off Palawan from April 16 to 27.
Historic Visit to Pag-Asa
On Aug. 2, 2011, four members of the House of Representatives landed on Pag-Asa Island in the Kalayaan Islands in the West Philippine Sea. The mission was historic on two counts: 1) it was the first time sitting members of Congress had come to Kalayaan; and 2) it was the first time a commercial plane landed in Pag-Asa, the largest of the nine islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines.
Criticism of the visit came from various quarters. Most vociferous in denouncing it was the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, which filed a diplomatic protest with the Department of Foreign Affairs. The DFA and Malacanang, both of which had no hand in the visit, told the Chinese Ambassador that they could do nothing to stop it for two reasons: 1) the Executive could not tell members of Congress what to do since Congress was a co-equal branch of government; and 2) it could not prevent citizens of the Philippines from traveling from one part of the country to another, in this case to the municipality of Kalayaan, which had been incorporated as a political into the national territory in the late seventies.
Reps. Kaka Bag-Ao, Ben Evardone, Teddy Baguilat, and I undertook the mission to support our government’s just claim to part of the Spratlys. It took place a few weeks after Rep. Bag-Ao and I co-sponsored a resolution renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea–a recommendation that was immediately implemented by the DFA, the Department of National Defense, and eventually Malacanang. But equally important as an objective was our promoting a peaceful solution to the Spratlys dispute via multilateral negotiations among the six countries making claims to the area. This was our response to disturbing reports of harassment of Filipino fishermen and an oil exploration vessel by Chinese patrols.
As the head of the mission, I welcomed the DFA and Malacanang’s support of our right to travel to Pag-Asa. As the proponent of a peaceful solution to the territorial dispute, however, I was disturbed by succeeding developments.
Running to Uncle Sam: A Bad Idea
While urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China to forge an updated “Code of Conduct” governing the behavior of the interested parties as they awaited a diplomatic settlement of the dispute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of National Defense were simultaneously pursuing what turned out to be their principal approach to the territorial conflict: to bring in the United States as a military protector.
The United States, in fact, did not need much convincing. Declaring that it had a strong interest in keeping the West Philippine Sea open to commerce, Washington eagerly snatched the Philippine invitation to legitimize its move to assert a stronger military presence in the area. High profile assertions of mutual support by Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto del Rosario and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were followed by a low-profile “bilateral strategic dialogue” between Pentagon officials and their Filipino counterparts aimed at “an expansion of the US military presence the country,” according to the New York Times.
Running to Uncle Sam, we had warned, was precisely the wrong response to the Chinese. For by promoting a military solution, we were, in fact, defeating our main purpose with respect to the Spratlys, which was to settle a territorial dispute.
By bringing in the United States, not as a mediator, but as an armed protector, we converted what was a territorial disagreement into a superpower confrontation, one driven by its own dynamics, leading to a marginalization of the territorial issue.
The “Obama Pivot”
See how fast matters have moved beyond our control: Beginning in late 2011, starting at the APEC in Honolulu in early November, the Obama administration unfolded its new strategic posture. After over two decades of trying with little success to control events in the Middle East, Washington now moved to make East Asia and the Western Pacific the “pivot” of the US’s global military presence.
The primary strategic objective of the “Obama Pivot” is to contain China, which is now firmly defined as a strategic rival. Under the new strategy, the central frontline for the US will shift from Iraq and Afghanistan to the South China Sea and the adjoining area stretching up to Korea and Japan.
The “Obama Pivot” to Asia is hardly new. It is the revival of the post-World War II strategy, first articulated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, of using what he termed America’s “Western Pacific Island Chain” stretching from the Philippines to Japan to project power onto the Asian landmass, from which threats to US security were perceived to emanate. Frustrated in the Middle East, the US has regressed to the Cold War era of “Containment,” a strategic posture that was directed at “Red China,” as well as the old Soviet Union. And it is dragging us along with it.
Provocative War Games
From April 16 to 27, the two governments will stage the annual Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”) drill, with military units from Australia, South Korea, and Japan joining in either as participants or observers. Reportedly, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore will also join in, making the military exercise one of the biggest in recent years. “Intriguingly,” notes one military analyst, “the geographical focus of this year’s combat drills has been shifted from the northern island of Luzon…to Palawan in the South China Sea, nearer the disputed Spratly Islands.” While the drill is being publicly announced as a disaster response rehearsal, the focus of the exercise will be on combined planning, readiness, and “interoperability” between US and AFP forces. As some observers have pointed out, this year’s Balikatan is unusual since it involves more trainors than trainees, with 2300 AFP personnel receiving instructions from some 4500 US troops.
Taken in the context of Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy, which everyone knows is aimed at China, the Balikatan war games are downright provocative.
Is China a Threat?
Is there really a Chinese threat?
There is no doubt that the Chinese are tough when it comes to rhetoric, but as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asserted, “[W]hile China has always been vigilant about its borders and has occupied Tibet, it has not historically been an expansionist power with territorial designs on its neighbors.”
The Spratlys dispute is a territorial dispute among adjoining countries, not evidence of “Chinese expansionism.”
China’s military spending is a quarter of the size of the Pentagon’s budget. And even if it is building up its forces, there is currently little cause for alarm. As the most recent issue of the Economist notes, “For the moment at least, China is far less formidable than hawks on both sides claim. Its armed forces have had no real combat experience for more than 30 years, whereas America’s have been fighting, and learning, constantly. The capacity of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for complex joint operations in a hostile environment is untested. China’s formidable missile and submarine forces would pose a threat to American carrier groups near its coast, but not farther out to sea for some time at least. Blue-water operations for China’s navy are limited to anti-piracy patrolling in the Indian Ocean and the rescue of Chinese workers from war-torn Libya. Two or three small aircraft-carriers may soon be deployed, but learning to use them will take many years. Nobody knows if the “carrier-killer” missile can be made to work.”
The appropriate response to China’s rhetoric is a firm, straightforward assertion of our rights, like the trip members of Congress made to Pag-Asa last August, coupled with an Asean-backed offer of a multilateral diplomatic solution.
Both Asean and China, it must be remembered, are committed to a diplomatic solution to the West Philippine Sea crisis, though the two parties continue to disagree whether a settlement should be pursued through bilateral talks (the Chinese position) or multilateral negotiations (the ASEAN stand). At a time that the Chinese are trying to project themselves as a responsible global power, they simply cannot afford an adventuristic course in the West Philippine Sea that would severely compromise this image.
The diplomatic window remains open. Instead of widening that window, the Balikatan war games will narrow it.
Rather than promoting regional security, Balikatan will raise the level of regional insecurity. My advice to President Aquino: It is probably too late at this point to withdraw from this year’s Balikatan without projecting inconsistency and confusion. But let this be the last time, Mr. President, that you allow your advisers and subordinates to draw our country into Washington’s confrontation with China.
To borrow a famous line from former US Secretary of State James Baker, “We don’t have a dog in this fight.”
Walden Bello represents Akbayan Party in the Philippine House of Representatives. His resolution calling for transparency in Philippine foreign policy led to hearings in the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Relations during the third week of February.
Akbayan to Chinese government: Defuse standoff, pull vessels out of Scarborough shoal
Akbayan Party today demanded the Chinese government to pull out of the Scarborough shoal (Panatag Shoal) in response to a standoff between the Philippine Navy and Chinese vessels in the area. According to Akbayan Party Representative Walden Bello, “The Scarborough Shoal is an integral part of our territory within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of the country.
"The burden of defusing the situation lies in the Chinese government which has unduly entered into our territory.The Scarborough Shoal is obviously part of Philippine territory. It is only 124 nautical miles from the nearest point in Zambales. Philippine sovereignty resides in that area," Bello said.
Bello said “the Chinese government should stay true to its previous pronouncements that it does not want any escalation of the conflict."
"Disputes in the West Philippine Sea must be resolved diplomatically and amicably and not through actions that coerce other claimants," Bello said.
"If the Chinese government still believes and abides by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to which it is a signatory to, then it should pull out its vessels from the Panatag Shoal immediately,” Bello added.
Akbayan also urged the Chinese government to use widely accepted diplomatic avenues to resolve the conflict in the area.
“The tone and rhetoric that the Chinese government has used to bully the Philippines to submit to its uncalled for demand that we withdraw from our own territory is ridiculous, unneighborly, and in stark contrast to its previous statements that it supports moves in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to finally draft a binding Code of Conduct," Bello said.
"China should not resort to gunboat diplomacy to assert its claims, or worse, to enter into another country's territory and disrespect its sovereignty,” Bello said.
Akbayan also called on the Aquino government to exhaust all peaceful and diplomatic channels to secure Philippine sovereignty in the area.
"I trust President Aquino and the Department of Foreign Affairs that they will secure our country's sovereignty in the area. We may be a small country but we should not be cowed by a bully," Bello concluded.
Ten Chinese vessels were monitored by the Philippine Navy's flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PF-15), when it was deployed there Sunday, April 8, for maritime patrol in the area. A boarding team sent to the vessels discovered various illegally collected giant clams, corals, and live sharks. Afterwards, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar reported 2 Chinese maritime surveillance ships had managed to sail at the mouth of the Shoal, placing themselves between PF-15 and the Chinese fishing vessels, thus preventing the arrest of the Chinese fishermen.
Akbayan Party has previously condemned Chinese naval intrusions into Philippine territory. In July of 2011, a peace and sovereignty mission led by Akbayan Representatives Walden Bello and Kaka Bag-ao together with other lawmakers visited Filipinos residing in Pag-asa Island on the West Philippine Sea. http://www.akbayan.org.ph/
Political party says North Korea missile undermines Philippine sovereignty, put Filipinos at risk
Akbayan Party today condemned the North Korean Government’s plan to launch a missile between April 12 to 16 which reportedly will pass through Philippine air space and which is said to coincide with the 100th birth anniversary of its “great leader” Kim Il Sung.
The Filipino political party said the planned missile launch will undermine Philippine sovereignty and put Filipinos at unnecessary risk.
“We condemn this planned missile launch of the North Korean regime. This act only serves to provoke the rest of the world and destabilize the region. Worst of all, the regime’s unilateral decision that Philippine territory would serve as a dumping ground of its rocket debris undermines our country’s sovereignty and exposes our citizens to unwarranted risk,” Akbayan Spokesperson Risa Hontiveros said.
“In solidarity with the Filipino people and the peoples of the world, we demand the North Korean government to immediately cancel this planned missile launch,” Hontiveros added.
Akbayan also chided the planned rocket launch stating that the North Korean government is putting its missile program over and above its people’s food security. Hontiveros said the planned missile launch was symptomatic of the country prioritizing its national defense over its people’s welfare.
“The North Korean government should take into account the humanitarian cost in pushing through with this missile launch. Should they push through with it, they are virtually making an international statement that they would rather let their people starve than cancel the rocket launch,” Hontiveros said.
United States using missile crisis to justify its military presence
Akbayan also criticized the United States government for using the rocket launch as a pretext to militarize the region.
“We cannot discount the fact that the argument for maintaining American presence in the region and Asia as a whole has been boosted by North Korea’s actions. The immediate American response to this has been to boost its presence in the region by sending more anti-missile ships near Japan on top of the 50,000 troops it has stationed in Japan and the more than 28,000 troops in South Korea,” according to Akbayan lawmaker Walden Bello.
“We reiterate, we cannot stop a bully by calling in another bully. Akbayan is against all forms of imperialism, whether it is American, Chinese or in this case, from the North Korean regime,” Bello said.
ASEAN should have greater stake in missile issue
Akbayan likewise called for greater participation of Southeast Asian nations in the issue. Bello stated that “given that the rocket is expected to land somewhere off the eastern coast of Northern Luzon, the least that Southeast Asian nations deserve is a greater voice on the pressing matter.”
“We must give the region a bigger voice regarding this serious issue. The repercussions of any North Korean missile launch is no longer felt exclusively in the Northeast Asian region but has already spilled over to our part of Asia. The fact that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has already expressed concern regarding this issue reflects this sentiment,” according to Bello.
It was reported that North Korea's Unha-3 rocket is expected to fly over western Japan, including part of Okinawa, scheduled to be launched anytime from April 12-16. North Korea informed the International Maritime Organization that the 2nd stage of the rocket will also splash 190 kilometers northeast of the Philippines. North Korea has claimed that the rocket is part of its “satellite program.”
The launch would be the fourth of its kind since 1998, when Pyongyang sent a long-range rocket hurtling over Japan. The last rocket launch, in 2009, led to a condemnation from the United Nations and with North Korea walking away from the six-party nuclear disarmament talks; weeks later, Pyongyang carried out its second nuclear test. North Korea launched an Unha-2 rocket in April of 2009 carrying a communications satellite. However, South Korean and US officials said that there was no satellite launched into orbit and that the rocket launch was actually a missile test for their Taepodong-2 missile. Russian space officials also verified that the alleged North Satellite was not in orbit.
It was alleged that the planned launch could demonstrate if North Korea is closer to perfecting a multi-stage rocket. Security analysts fear a launch could spur a chain of events that would mirror 2009 and send tensions soaring again on the Korean peninsula. A year after the last test, 50 South Koreans were killed in attacks blamed on North Korea.
Akbayan is the only left political party in the Philippines that has voiced its condemnation of the planned rocket launch of the North Korean government. The party is also the only left group in the country that opposed Chinese expansionism in the West Philippine Sea. http://www.akbayan.org.ph/
Akbayan Party congratulates Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy
Akbayan Party congratulates Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy (NLD) for their historic victory in the recently concluded by-elections in Burma. Despite persistent efforts by the military junta to derail the elections, the NLD has won at least 44 of the 45 contested seats in parliament. This election, although touted by many as token and merely symbolic, is a clear manifestation of the outright rejection of the military junta and a vote for genuine democracy by the peoples of Burma.
However, the peoples of Burma must not rest on their laurels. The military junta still controls most institutions of government and can easily withdraw some reforms it has introduced. The peoples of Burma must now persevere even harder now that they have representation in the parliament no matter how small it may be. This landslide victory of the NLD and the election of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament have undoubtedly been foreseen by the junta. The current political realities such as the international pressure on the junta and Burma’s continued isolation must be taken into account along with this latest development. Clearly, the military junta only wishes to project itself to the world as open to reforms by conceding a number of seats to the opposition while maintaining a huge majority of parliament. In effect, the junta is attempting to silence the opposition within the halls of parliament. We are certain that the peoples of Burma will not allow the military junta to deprive them of this victory. We are confident that with their continued struggle, both inside and outside of parliament, military rule will cease sooner than later and democracy will be restored.
While we celebrate this momentous occasion, we will also continue to cautiously await any future developments. Rest assured that Akbayan Party together with the Filipino people will continue to support the aspirations of the peoples of Burma for a free and democratic government. http://www.akbayan.org.ph/