Thursday, 20 March 2014

Banyan: The pressure on the Sierra Madre

Nguồn tin:

IN ONE respect, the meeting in Singapore this week between officials from the Association of South-East Asian Nations and China could not have come at a better time. Tensions are mounting dangerously in the much-disputed waters of the South China Sea and this meeting was trying to renew seemingly interminable attempts to agree on a “code of conduct” to lower the risk of conflict. Just nine days earlier the Chinese coast guard prevented Philippine vessels from delivering supplies to a grounded ship near one of the many disputed land features in the sea. And by March 30th the Philippines is to make its submission to a UN tribunal, arguing that the basis of China’s claim to much of the South China Sea is invalid under international law.

Yet China’s attitude to both the ship and the tribunal suggests that this is as bad a time as any to try to reach an agreement. In neither case does it seem interested in a compromise. The South China Sea looks destined to remain a source of anxiety in the region and rivalry between China and America for years to come.

The ship, the Sierra Madre, originally built by America in the second world war, was deliberately scuttled in 1999 in the Second Thomas shoal, an area known in the Philippines as Ayungin, and in China as Ren’ai. Now it is a leaky rustbucket, manned by a handful of Philippine marines to symbolise that these waters are within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) the Philippines claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But China also claims them, and, as before with the Philippines—at the Mischief reef in 1996 and the Scarborough shoal two years ago—seems intent on simply asserting control. This was the first time China has blocked the supply boats. It claimed they were carrying building materials, and that construction would change the status quo, and breach a “declaration” ASEAN and China signed in 2002 on the intended code of conduct. But since the Sierra Madre was already there in 2002, fixing it up a bit seems allowable. After its ships were blocked, the Philippines resupplied the marines with food and water by air. Now it is mulling taking the risk of another attempt by sea.

This more aggressive Chinese approach is part of China’s punishment of the Philippines for the temerity of its small, upstart neighbour (population, some 105m) in challenging it under UNCLOS. China points out that the law was never intended to adjudicate sovereignty, and says that, if the tribunal accepts the case and rules in the Philippines’ favour, it will ignore it. But the Philippines, which has hired an impressive team of international lawyers, surely has a point. China is a signatory to UNCLOS, yet bases its claim in the South China Sea on a “nine-dash line” in maps from the 1940s, which show virtually the entire sea as Chinese. UNCLOS stipulates the territorial waters and EEZs countries are allowed, based on the land over which they have sovereignty. The nine-dash line—which China has never fully explained—implies the opposite principle, apparently giving China sovereignty over the sea and, as a consequence, everything within it.

For the Philippines, recent events form part of a pattern of Chinese bullying, which has included turning water-cannon on Filipino fishermen near the Scarborough shoal. The bullying is all the more resented as China seems to threaten Philippine access to the sea’s fertile fishing grounds, and its purported wealth of hydrocarbon resources. China’s military expansion has left the Philippines feeling weak and cornered. Its navy’s newest ships are two retired US Coastguard cutters and three Royal Navy vessels once used to patrol Hong Kong waters. The Philippine Air Force has no jetfighters or bombers—all air and no force, say Filipinos.

Diplomatically, China has sought to isolate the Philippines. Its government has been buttering up the other nine members of ASEAN, even though two of them (Malaysia and Vietnam) also have territorial disputes with it in the sea, and its nine-dash line violates the EEZs of two others (Brunei and Indonesia). But it has ostracised and vilified Benigno Aquino, the Philippine president.

This strategy may not be working, however. China’s behaviour has unnerved other ASEAN members. Vietnam, with which its dispute is even more extensive, has been alarmed by new rules introduced this year by Hainan province in China, requiring foreign vessels to seek China’s permission to fish, and by a reported attack on a Vietnamese ship near the disputed Paracel islands, controlled by China since it evicted the garrison of the former South Vietnamese regime in 1974. And Indonesia, which has liked to portray itself as a potential mediator, having no territorial stand-offs with China in the sea, is now accepting that it too is in dispute, because of the nine-dash line’s scope. Malaysia, oddly, denied China’s claim that in January three of its warships had patrolled the southern perimeter of the nine-dash line, near features that it claims. But its relations with China have anyway soured under withering attacks from Chinese officials over its handling of the disappearance of flight MH370 (see article).

Yankee, come back

Another consequence of China’s approach is a welcome elsewhere in the region for America’s proclaimed “pivot” to Asia, and especially its military aspects even—indeed especially—in the Philippines, an American treaty ally. Popular anti-American sentiment there led in 1992 to the removal of America’s military bases—the last vestiges of its colonial rule. But the government faces no popular uproar today as it negotiates an arrangement to “rotate” American forces through the country.

China must also be aware that America is for now preoccupied with a bigger land-grab in Europe by another dominant regional power. America has recently been explicit in condemning the nine-dash line, and backed the Philippines in its legal battle at UNCLOS. But China knows that, in the battle of the Sierra Madre, America is more likely to be restraining the Philippines than goading it into aggression.

Đăng ký: Hoc tieng anh



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