(The Chinese Government newspaper Global Times recently contacted the author for an email interview on the Spratly-West Philippine Sea controversy. After I submitted my answers, I received no acknowledgment or any further communication from the paper, possibly because the answers I gave were not to the newspaper’s liking. Under the principle of never allowing a good interview to go to waste, I am reprinting it as my column here.)
How do you view the current South China Sea crisis? Will it further escalate?
Yes, I am afraid tensions will increase and could get out of hand, and the fault does not lie with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.
For the South China Sea issue, China has been always advocating the principle of putting aside disputes and going in for joint development, in your opinion, is it a proper way to solve the South China Sea dispute?
Joint development without clear delineation of borders is a recipe for future conflicts. The appropriate way to solve the issue is through multilateral negotiations involving all parties with claims to the area. The UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) established the principle of countries having 200-nautical-mile-exclusive economic zones, and where these intersect and where there are disputed areas, multilateral negotiations are the only viable solution where there are several claimants. This is a very reasonable position. Yet China refuses this solution, and instead tries to resolve matters unilaterally by making incursions into the 200-nautical-mile-EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) of other countries, or building structures in those areas, as in some parts of the Spratly Islands that are in the EEZ of the Philippines. For instance, Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef), which China occupied over Philippine objections, is well within the 200 mile EEZs of the Philippines and over 1,000 miles from the Chinese coast. Moreover, China has formally staked a claim to the whole Sea, right down to the 24 nautical mile contiguous zones or 12-nautical mile-territorial limits of other countries in the area, completely disregarding the others’ EEZs and the fact that the waters and islands China is claiming are several hundred or even a thousand or more nautical miles beyond territorial border. This is Big Power behavior, and here China is unfortunately emulating the example of the European colonizers and the United States.
Some predict that a war in South China Sea is inevitable, do you agree?
No, I do not think so, although naval encounters, such as the tragic encounter in 1988 between China and Vietnam, where about 70 Vietnamese sailors died, are a possibility. China must really climb down from its aggressive posture, otherwise, a chain of events may ensue that goes out of control. Remember, World War I was an unintended war, one that nobody wanted, but once the mutual military mobilizations began, it was impossible to bring things under control. Multilateral diplomacy for a comprehensive settlement of the West Philippine Sea issue is the best way to avoid such an unintended conflict
China has developed closer economic ties with many countries in Southeast Asia including the Philippines and maintained good relations with these countries, to what extent will the South China Sea dispute affect the relations between China and the Philippine?
These economic ties could sour if the Southeast Asian countries perceive that China is beginning to behave like an arrogant military hegemon. Countries might become more worried that China’s military – or the threat of its use – might be employed to protect or push Chinese investments and other economic interests in their territories and begin to impose investment and trade restrictions on Chinese capital and trade inflows. As China becomes more dependent on agricultural land in Southeast Asia to produce food for its population and on Southeast Asia’s resources to feed its industries, our countries will worry about signs of Chinese military hegemony. People remember that Japan resorted to force to gain control of Southeast Asia’s land and resources 70 years ago. They remember that Japanese traders, investors, and settlers started coming into the different countries of the region years before the Japanese military came. Of course, China is not imperial Japan, but you can’t blame people in Southeast Asia if they get worried by signs of military hegemony exhibited by another Northeast Asian power.
How do you see the US’ role in the South China Sea dispute? And how will the US affect the dispute?
All countries that are signatories to UNCLOS are committed to protecting freedom of navigation in the world’s main waterways, such as the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines must rely on ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as its key ally in resolving the West Philippine Sea issue with China. I do not agree with the Philippine and Vietnamese strategy to draw the US in as a first resort. Bringing in the US carries the danger of converting the crisis into a conflict between superpowers. However, I really can’t blame these governments for taking this course of action. I blame China’s aggressive behavior. The best way to avoid the intervention of the US in the West Philippine Sea’s territorial disputes is for China to stop its aggressive behavior and come to the diplomatic table. A diplomatic solution that avoids US military intervention is in the best interest of both China and the Philippines.
Will the South China Sea be a long-term headache for the involved countries and for the security of Asia-Pacific region? What is the breakthrough point to solve the problem?
Yes, it will be a long-term headache if we do not resolve the issue via multilateral diplomacy soon. A demilitarized West Philippine Sea where borders are agreed upon, in the same way that the Gulf of Tonkin and Vietnam-China land borders were settled by Vietnam and China is the best guarantee of peace in the region. If China could settle these borders peacefully with Vietnam, why can’t it do the same thing in multilateral discussions with the countries bordering the West Philippine Sea?
*originally published in the inquirer