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PH’s dimmed chances of getting fair deal

05:04 AM March 21, 2018

With the ascendancy of President Xi Jinping as China’s paramount leader with a lifetime tenure (some now call him Emperor Xi), the Philippines’ chances of getting a fair deal on the South China Sea dispute have dimmed.

It was Xi, as general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, who explicitly said in Singapore in 2015 that the islands in the South China Sea have been China’s territory since ancient times. “It is a bounden duty of the Chinese government to uphold China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate maritime rights and interests,” he said.

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Xi’s pronouncement has been the focal point of all of China’s aggressive actions in the disputed area, including the building of military infrastructure on three reefs that are part of Philippine territory, as recognized by the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. China has blatantly ignored this ruling despite its being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) that created the arbitral court.

The April 2016 ruling recognizes Philippine sovereign rights in its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone to access offshore oil and gas fields, including the Reed Bank, 157 kilometers off its coast. It invalidates China’s “nine-dash line” claim on its maps denoting sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

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Although Xi has expressed China’s willingness to talk with the other claimants to the islands, including the Philippines, and work with Southeast Asian nations to make the South China Sea an area of peace, friendship and cooperation, he imposed one caveat: that China’s historic rights over the area are nonnegotiable.

Xi has also threatened to go to war if the Philippines tried to explore oil in the contested area. President Duterte recalled that when he broached this idea to Xi during a visit to Beijing in 2017, Xi bluntly told him that if he would do so, then China would go to war.

There is no doubt that China would thwart any move by any country that would infringe on its claimed territorial waters.

In a report carried late last year by an internal magazine of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China boasted of its leadership role in the South China Sea and said other players could not match its military supremacy in the region.

The report, monitored by Kyodo News, amounts to a rare admission by China’s military of its real intention in the region. Specifically, it sheds light on China’s policy of boosting its military influence in the area under the cloak of “civilian activities” such as private aviation.

According to Kyodo, China’s massive land reclamation projects have helped the PLA in achieving strategic advantage in military security in the South China Sea. “Intimidated by the projects, related claimants and neighboring countries are unlikely to provoke any military conflict or escalate it into a war because they are too poorly prepared,” the report said.

With Xi consolidating his power in the party and the powerful Central Military Commission, of which he is also the chair, the message is clear to the other claimants to the contested area: Don’t dare challenge us.

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On military confrontation with the United States, the report said that while Washington is likely to maintain its seemingly neutral stance on the sovereignty issue of the region, it “lacks both the ability and will to engage in a military conflict or go to war with us.”

Even the so-called joint oil exploration of the area by China and the Philippines could be an exercise in futility. Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio has said the venture is unconstitutional, unless Chinese state-owned firms recognize Philippine sovereignty over the area. But since, according to Xi, China has sovereign rights “since ancient times” over much of the South China Sea including what we now call West Philippine Sea, Carpio’s condition is wishful thinking.

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Alito L. Malinao is a former diplomatic reporter and news editor of the Manila Standard. He teaches journalism at Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”

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TAGS: Alito L. Malinao, China politics, Inquirer Commentary, xi jinping
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