Both superpowers are guilty of destabilizing the region, so why target only one?

China’s unilateral seizure of and the building of installations in maritime formations within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (also known as the West Philippine Sea) as well as in the greater South China Sea is illegal and reflects big power aggressive expansionism. China should unconditionally dismantle its installations and immediately withdraw from these formations.

China’s arbitrary nine-dash claim of 90 per cent of the South China Sea is without any legal basis and tramples on the rights of five other countries, including the Philippines, that border on this body of water. We assert that the South China Sea and its natural resources constitute a “common heritage of mankind” (as defined in the United Nations Conference on Law of the Sea – UNCLOS III) that belong to all humanity and are therefore available for every one’s use and benefit. The need, therefore, is for countries to cooperate and work closely together instead of competing for the resources of the seas.

We cannot, however, be narrow-minded and myopic and single out China for condemnation and limit our demand to asking it to “leave” the area. We must also ask the United States to pack up and leave. This is not just for reasons of justice. It is also for the very practical reason that without a US military withdrawal from the South China Sea, China will not depart.

China’s expansionism in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea is clearly unjustifiable but is, nevertheless, understandable. Beijing has made the provocative moves of seizing maritime formations from the Philippines to place surface to air missile emplacements on them as part of an effort to extend a defensive perimeter to ward off a potential US attack. Even the Pentagon does not view China’s moves in the South China Sea as offensive in nature but as part of Beijing’s overall strategy of strategic defense.

Is China being paranoid?

No. First of all, the reality is that the South China Sea is and has been an “American Lake” since the Second World War. The US 7th Fleet controls the South China Sea with its carrier task forces, accompanied by scores of surface ships, nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed attack and strategic submarines, and provocative air reconnaissance with fighter support up to 12 miles off Chinese coast. This is the spearhead of a forward-deployed military presence of some 50 major US military bases ringing China from Northern Japan to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Second, the operative warfighting doctrine of the US is “Airsea Battle” that involves cruise missiles that overcome Chinese anti-missile defenses to deliver conventional and nuclear payloads on China’s coastal industrial infrastructure and blind its electronic defenses.

Third, from Obama to Trump to Biden, China has been defined as the US’s strategic enemy, with Biden’s Department of Defense zeroing in on China as “DOD’s No. 1 pacing challenge,” to meet which it “will develop operational concepts, capabilities and plans to bolster deterrence and maintain its competitive advantage.” The approach toward China will be coordinated and synchronized across the enterprise to advance DOD’s priorities — integrated into domestic and foreign policy — in a whole-of-government strategy….”

The South China Sea is today the world’s premier hotspot – with US and Chinese ships engaged in “war games” of chicken where opposing ships and planes bear down on each other to swerve only at the last minute. The danger of a ship collision escalating into a major confrontation involving the use of conventional arms or nuclear arms cannot be discounted in a region where there are no rules of the game except a very unstable balance of power.

Beijing will not stand down unless the US withdraws its military threat to China as well. Thus, the Philippines and other concerned Southeast Asian states must take the initiative and propose a demilitarization agreement that will involve China’s withdrawal from maritime formations seized from the Philippines and other countries, cease interfering with the livelihoods of Filipino and other fishers, and shelve its claims to the whole South China Sea, in return for the US’s withdrawal from the area of its 7th Fleet and five bases in the Philippines and the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement.

If successful, these measures could eventually pave the way to more positive relations between China, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia as a whole built on jointly developing the resources of the South China Sea commons and protecting its unique ecosystem. Bringing about this future based on common prosperity is not impossible, but the first hard steps must be taken.

Laban ng Masa

Reference: Atty. Aaron Pedrosa (Sanlakas); Racquel Castillo (Laban ng Masa)