Philippines pushes back against China
by Chico Harlan - Tuesday, July 23, 2013
by Chico Harlan - Tuesday, July 23, 2013
US and Philippine navy personnel prepare to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle from a boat off the naval base in Sangley point, west of Manila. The six-day exercises were held last month, close to Scarborough Shoal, which China insists it owns.
MANILA — China’s most daring adversary in Southeast Asia is, by many measurements, ill-suited for a fight. The Philippines has a military budget 1 / 40th the size of Beijing’s, and its navy cruises through contested waters with 1970s hand-me-downs from the South Vietnamese. From that shorthanded position, the Philippines has set off on a risky mission to do what no nation in the region has managed to do: thwart China in its drive to control the vast waters around it.
Analysts say the Philippines’s strategy, in standing up to Asia’s powerhouse, is just as likely to backfire as succeed. But it provides a crucial test case as smaller countries debate whether to deal with China as a much-needed economic partner, a dangerous maritime aggressor, or both. The Philippines doesn’t view China exclusively as a threat, officials here say, noting that trade between the countries is growing. The Philippines has also used caution at times, most notably by holding off on provocative plans to drill in what could be the nation’s richest oil and gas field. But analysts point to a series of steps taken in recent months that suggest Manila is increasingly willing to confront Beijing. They also note that the Philippines has suspended or canceled several development deals that depended on generous Chinese aid.
Earlier this year, the Philippines filed a case with the United Nations contesting China’s maritime claims. More recently, the Philippines has increased its manpower on disputed islands, approved upgrades to decrepit military equipment and discussed plans that would give the United States expanded access to its air and naval bases.
Speaking to his armed forces in May, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the nation needed to protect its maritime territory from “bullies.” Battles over territory in Asia go back centuries, but China has made an increasingly aggressive play in recent years to recover land that it says fell wrongly into foreign hands.
China is locked in a fierce battle with Japan over an uninhabited island chain in the East China Sea. China also has made a case for ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea, marking its territory with a nine-dash line it submitted to the United Nations in 2009. At least four other countries — Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam — are skirmishing over the tiny islands and the waters within that boundary. They covet sovereignty not just as a matter of national pride but also to claim rich fisheries and underwater oil and gas resources.
But they have reason to tread cautiously. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. Brunei depends on China as a market for its fossil fuel exports. Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, has fostered a major improvement in relations with Beijing. Comparatively, Vietnam has been more willing to anger China. The two nations have a legacy of centuries of animosity, including a brief border war in 1979 and more recent clashes at sea. But the two are also Communist partners, capable of patching up frayed ties.
Some Filipinos say their country is more suited than others in the region to play tough with China.
The Philippines has deep ties to Washington, stemming from a U.S. colonial period that ended in 1946. China and the Philippines took opposite sides in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in the Cold War. Political experts here say the Philippines’s strategy on China is being mapped out by its foreign affairs secretary, Albert del Rosario, who attended New York University and served as ambassador in Washington. Aquino is said to be fully on board with the policy. Del Rosario last year called on the Philippines to “take a position of patriotism that what is ours is ours.” “It is possible that we may be tested,” he said, “and if we are tested, it is possible that everyone would need to make a sacrifice.”
Collapse of goodwill
Just a few years ago, China tried to make friends with the Philippines — and nearly succeeded. The reason it fell short indicates the limits of soft power — namely, aid and investment deals — at a time when the nation has made a priority of expanding its foreign influence. Under the Philippines’s previous president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Beijing showered Manila with more than $2 billion in loans.
Some of the money was meant for railroad projects. An additional $330 million was designed to fund a broadband network that would connect 25,000 municipal offices.
As the money was flowing, the Philippines signed off on what Arroyo called a “diplomatic breakthrough” — a tripartite deal that allowed China and Vietnam to survey contested maritime territory near Philippine shores, with the hope of joint oil and gas development. The goodwill collapsed in short order. The broadband deal was laced with corruption and kickbacks for Philippine officials, as a congressional investigation revealed.
The joint surveying deal came under even fiercer attack, as opposition politicians and many prominent Filipinos said Arroyo had violated the constitution — by essentially giving away territory. Although the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) was never described by Arroyo as a quid pro quo for economic cooperation, it was signed in 2005, when relations with Beijing were at their best. “In my opinion, it was a sellout,” said Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
“The terms of the JMSU were so biased. Only areas of the Philippines were allowed for exploration.” Arroyo, under domestic pressure, allowed the initial three-year JMSU contract to lapse in 2008. But the collapse of that deal reopened a decades-long debate between the Philippines and China over the rights to seabed hydrocarbons.
The Philippines worked out unilateral deals to prospect for oil and gas. And China, in turn, increased its surveillance of the waters, badgering Philippine vessels in places where they had previously gone unbothered. None of the standoffs have turned violent, but in March 2011, Manila accused two Chinese coast guard boats of harassing a Philippines-commissioned oil exploration vessel near Reed Bank, a promising drilling site about 80 nautical miles off the coast of Palawan, the Philippines’ westernmost major island.
The Philippines has since put the project on hold, citing political tensions. That holdup has proven the most costly repercussion of the row with China. The Philippines had been exploring the Reed Bank for nearly four decades and considered it crucial to the energy security of a nation that imports most of its fossil fuels from the Middle East.
Philippine officials said the Reed Bank exploration site, an area just smaller than Connecticut, could become the country’s largest source of natural gas. A service contract, awarded to a Philippine-British oil consortium, was recently extended by two years, to 2015, with the hope that exploration can resume by then without conflict. “This site could be earning $1 billion per year for the Philippines,” said Ismael Ocampo, assistant director at the Energy Department in Manila. “So, yes, this holdup is costly.”
Aside from standoffs between vessels at sea, China and the Philippines have only the most furtive maritime contact, as each monitors the activities of the other around the South China Sea’s tiny islands, reefs and sandbars. China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, have spent recent years establishing settlements on these islands on a first-come basis.
The Philippines inhabits just nine of the 53 such rocks or islands that it considers its own, citing a U.N. maritime treaty. The Vietnamese have claimed 22, though without eliciting quite the same scorn from Filipinos as China. Meanwhile, China has placed an estimated 1,000 troops on its seven islands. It has turned one tiny reef into a concrete fortress with a windmill and a basketball court. Philippine officials see little chance that the Chinese will withdraw. “It’s like they have already invaded us,” said Eugenio Bito-Onon, mayor of the Philippine-claimed islands, which are an official municipality.
Japan Vows Support for Philippines in China Row
by OLIVER TEVES - Saturday, July 27, 2013
by OLIVER TEVES - Saturday, July 27, 2013
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, presents Philippine President Benigno Aquino III with a topographical map of the country's third largest island of Mindanao at the conclusion of their joint press statement Saturday July 27, 2013 at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines. Photo: AP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged support for Philippine maritime forces on Saturday as both countries confront China in separate territorial disputes.
Following a meeting with President Benigno Aquino III in the Philippine capital, Abe announced that Japan will provide a concessional loan to build 10 coast guard patrol boats for the Philippines.
The Philippines has already received two coast guard ships from the United States as it seeks to build a deterrent naval force after China took control of a disputed shoal off the northwestern Philippines last year. China's assertiveness to lay claim to most of the South China Sea after decades of relative calm has alarmed Manila, which has turned to the United Nations to seek international arbitration. Beijing has indicated it won't cooperate. In a statement issued after their meeting, Aquino said that the two leaders reviewed security challenges both countries face and promised to cooperate to push for "responsible action from international players," in a reference to China.
He said that maritime cooperation with Japan was a pillar of the countries' strategic partnership.
Abe said that a key element of Japan's efforts to revive its economy and promote regional peace and security lies in closer relations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN includes the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which have disputes with China in the South China Sea. Abe's trip to Manila was the last leg of a three-day visit to Southeast Asia that also took him to Malaysia and Singapore. At a news conference, Abe sounded conciliatory toward Beijing, saying problems are inevitable among neighbors but that Japan's ties with China are important and based on "common strategic interests."
He urged China to view the relationship the same way and to be open to "frank and candid" talks, without preconditions. He said he has directed his foreign affairs officials to "promptly" set up meetings with their Chinese counterparts. Abe also said there were "deepening discussions on what is the appropriate form of constitution for the present-day Japan" based on the global security environment. The Japanese constitution, crafted by the United States at the end of World War II, renounces war and prohibits Japan from maintaining forces with "war potential."
He said there would also be discussions on the national defense program guidelines and Japan's right of "collective defense." On Friday, an interim Defense Ministry paper released by the Japanese government called for increased military capabilities and a more assertive role in regional security. The implementation of some of the changes outlined in the paper would be a major policy shift for the military, which is limited to self-defense and banned from overseas combat operations under Japan's pacifist constitution. Abe assured countries in the region occupied by Japanese forces during World War II that constitutional reforms would be made "with the obvious premise of pacifism, people's sovereignty and basic human rights."
Abe's visit to Southeast Asia came after Japan scrambled jets on Wednesday to keep watch on a Chinese Y-8 early warning plane flying over international waters between Japan's southern Okinawa island and an outer island relatively close to the disputed area in the East China Sea. The Chinese Defense Ministry issued a statement defending the right of its aircraft to operate in the area. Around the same time the Chinese fighter jet was sighted, Japan's coast guard reported the appearance of four Chinese coast guard vessels near the Senkaku islands. On Friday, China said that ships from its newly formed coast guard confronted Japanese patrol vessels and "sternly declared" China's sovereignty over the islands.
The uninhabited archipelago is controlled by Tokyo but coveted by Beijing. Chinese coast guard ships have also been spotted this week at Mischief Reef off the western Philippine coast, according to a confidential Philippine government report obtained by The Associated Press. China occupied the vast reef in 1995, sparking protests from rival claimant Manila.
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