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War and peace

Last month, one of my professors at UP sought my advice as to whether he should push through with a visit to China in July.

He was worried because the trip would mean he would be in China on July 12, a date he gave with an ominous tone that reminded me of how people anticipated the dawn of the 21st century and the Y2K problem.

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His fear stemmed from the fact that the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration was expected to deliver that day its verdict on the case filed by the Philippines around the disputed West Philippine Sea.

The professor’s fear, shared by many Filipinos, was based on several misconceptions as to what that verdict involves, and the idea that the verdict could lead to war.

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Island, rock …  low tide

Let’s look at those misconceptions:

First, there is this idea that the tribunal will decide on who “owns” the disputed waters, with many predicting that it will rule in favor of the Philippines, which will then enrage China.  It did not help that China declared several times that it would refuse to recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

What will actually happen (or has happened, by the time you’re reading this) is that the court will elaborate on how the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) applies to the disputed waters. At issue here is China’s “historical claims” of ownership to a wide area of the South China Sea.

Now the Philippines is asking the court to further clarify the Unclos, which has been ratified by 167 states, including China.  At issue is the definition of claims around “features.”  Unclos is clear that an island is entitled to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone or EEZ and a 12-mile territorial sea.  In contrast, a rock is entitled only to a 12-mile territorial sea. Then there’s a low-tide elevation, which cannot be used to claim any maritime zone.  (Remember the joke where someone asks how many islands we have in the Philippines and we answer, it depends on whether it’s high tide or low tide.)

It seems straightforward but turns out to be much more complicated given the existing definitions. An island is a natural formation of land, surrounded by water, and above water during high tide; but if it “cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of (its) own,” then it is a rock.

Imagine what all this means for something as simple as our claims about the number on islands we have. We’ve joked, for the longest time, that the number depends on whether it’s high tide or low tide.  Unclos makes it more complicated with the insertion of the terms “human habitation” and “economic life” in the definitions.

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Get the drift now as to why China is rushing to inhabit the islands? Or to even create islands?

Cooperation?

It will be a complicated verdict, and we should heed President Duterte when he says he will want to study the document once it is issued.  He is, after all, a lawyer.

He is also a pragmatist, having proposed that perhaps we can work out agreements with China on the use of the disputed waters.

I’ve had friends commenting, “No way we’re going to share,” while others go, “No way China’s going to share,” the latter comment based on this idea that China is raring to go to war.

I would ask, “With whom?”

China sees the United States as the main problem. The standard line it carries is that it is the United States who wants to destabilize the region, because America is concerned about China, which is developing too rapidly—economically, and in terms of military capability and strength.

The reality is perhaps more complicated than that, but it does reflect how convoluted the situation is.

Meanwhile there’s still another angle to be considered: Do the people in the region want war?  This was something I realized only recently during a trip to Japan this week, where I met with university professors from the region, not to talk about maritime disputes but to discuss sustainability issues.

But the conversations inevitably did drift to July 12. People are concerned, but not fearful. One Japanese professor, Yuki Suzuki, is an expert on global politics, and he reminded me that East Asian countries—South Korea, Japan and China—do not want war. They were the ones who suffered the most during World War II, losing millions of lives. The suffering continued for years after the war, as these countries struggled to recover.

Now that they are the most developed countries in the region; they are not about to sacrifice everything in the name of territorial claims. South Korea and Japan have ongoing maritime territorial disputes, too, with China.

So why is China coming through as belligerent?

Well it depends on one’s bias. We see China as belligerent but not the United States, which has been conducting military operations as well in the area.  The United States claims it is playing a deterrent role, at one time with formidable guided-missile destroyer ships.

China is doing political theater, what I call “Peking Opera.”  The leaders have to make noise for both domestic and international consumption.  But theater is theater and for many reasons, China is not about to declare war. While they have developed their military capabilities, China knows they still lag behind the United States and Japan.

All said, there’s too much to lose for everyone.  I was struck, too, when a Chinese professor told me: “We’d lose too much if we go to war.  It’s not just the economy. Remember we had a one-child per family policy, and we Chinese are not about to send off an only son to war.”

We may have large families in the Philippines, but does that mean we’re ready to send our sons and daughters into the battlefield?

Keep calm

What’s ahead then after July 12?

China will turn up the volume on political theater, and so will America.  We too have been doing our own political theater, but we need to learn from the way China has gone past theatrics.  China went ahead and took over islands to prove human habitation. They’re also intensively doing maritime, as well as political, research.

A few months ago while surfing through cable TV, I accidentally caught an hour-long TV documentary, on one of China’s government channels, about joint military activities of Japan and the Philippines.  It gave very detailed information with extensive video footage.  Note this was on public television.

In contrast, how much do we keep our fellow Filipinos informed on the issues around the disputed area?

We keep asserting our claims, but look at the lives of the people living on Kalayaan Island, who pretty much symbolize our claims to the area. The people live there in great poverty, forsaken by government and, it seems, by the gods.

I learned about the poverty in Kalayaan through the New York Times, which in 2013 featured a long article (“A Game of Shark and Minnow”) with videos and photographs.

Let’s keep calm, and keep talking.  It should not be seen as weakness to want peace.

* * *

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TAGS: arbitration, China, Maritime Dispute, Philippines, South China Sea, Unclos, West Philippine Sea
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