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Squandering a historic opportunity

TAIPEI — On the sidelines of a recent conference here on the South China Sea, a Taiwanese academic remarked to me that the Philippines, at least, knows how to put its claim on the contested waters front and center of global attention. “Your country was bold enough to make noise,” he said, taking on China by building its case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. In contrast, he said, Taiwan is not even invited to take its place at the table in meetings of Asean Foreign Ministers working on a long-overdue draft of a Code of Conduct for claimants to the South China Sea.

The remark struck me as most indicative of how small states marginalized by China’s large claims and ambitions must have felt when we took it to court and won.

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Taiwan, handicapped by its diplomatic status as a nonstate, yet conscious that it controls Itu Aba, the largest island in the Spratlys — and was in fact the originator of the “nine-dash line” that China intransigently uses even now as basis for its “historic rights” over the entire sea — apparently looks to us for cues on how a small nation can make significant noise so as to catch the world’s attention and call allies to its side.

Unfortunately, a year after the PCA’s landmark ruling, it appears we have badly squandered our opportunity to push back China to its rightful corner.

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Instead of asserting our rights based on the ruling, we are celebrating the crumbs that China has thrown our way. Ambassador Jose Sta. Romana blithely listed our supposed gains: “Whereas before, we did not have access to Scarborough Shoal, now we have access. Before, there were fears that the Chinese will reclaim Scarborough Shoal; now the Chinese are saying they won’t build.”

This glosses over the fact that China has been shown to have no exclusive rights over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, and has no right whatsoever to bully or block access to the area. For centuries Panatag has been traditional fishing ground for the coastal people of Zambales, which is only 137 miles away.

It is grossly naive of the ambassador to believe that China will keep its word and desist from building artificial islands and military installations to legitimize and defend its claims. Just months after the PCA ruling, satellite photos by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative showed China building giant antiaircraft and close-in weapons systems (CIWS) emplacements for detecting and gunning down incoming missile and aircraft on Mischief Reef, which, per the PCA ruling, lies entirely within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The Duterte administration’s weak-kneed policy of appeasement betrays ignorance of China’s nature as an adversary. China has long been guided by a deep and durable Sinocentrism which seems benign, its shrewd pragmatism allowing its policies to be sufficiently malleable so as to appear nonconfrontational while quietly advancing its interests. Quite early, this was evident in Deng Xiaoping’s response to the Philippine government on this issue in 1988: “In view of the friendly relations between our two countries, we can set aside this issue for the time being and take the approach of pursuing joint development.”

As recent events have shown, the permanent subtext is that whatever negotiations China makes bilaterally with claimant states, sovereignty over the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal is assumed to belong to China. Used to biding its time, it will wait until conditions are ripe for asserting territorial ownership, and the usual tool for this is economic domination. As the countries that have signed on to Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative are beginning to experience, China’s largesse demands not just obeisance but also the loss and surrender of their patrimony.

The only countervailing force to the asymmetry of power relations in the region is the soft power of legal and metalegal pressure that the Philippines has shown to be capable of exerting, but has subserviently surrendered for short-term gains.

The PCA ruling has freed up from China’s claims a huge portion of the South China Sea as navigable waters for all. We can widen the space for a truly functional “global commons” in this contested sea by engaging multiple stakeholders from within and outside the region.

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Needless to say, a multilateral approach is something China is deathly afraid of.

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Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and author of “Rise Up and Walk, Culture and Religion in Empowering the Poor,” published in Oxford, UK.

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TAGS: Inquirer Commentary, Maritime Dispute, Melba Padilla Maggay, Permanent Court of Arbitration, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea
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