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Monday, May 14, 2012

Philippines-China spat tests ASEAN solidarity

Special to The Japan Times

KANEOHE, Hawaii — The China-Philippines spat over Scarborough Shoal seems like the proverbial tempest in a teacup. But its roots are deep and even primal, comprising rising nationalism and the setting of political and legal precedents while indirectly involving U.S.-China rivalry.

The confrontation has already become a test of solidarity for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the fiber of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, and U.S. political power in the region. Although Scarborough Shoal is not part of the disputed Spratlys, the outcome of this confrontation may be a harbinger for maritime diplomatic and legal battles yet to come.

Raw nationalism and aggressive leadership are driving the issue forward in both countries. China's blogosphere and global Philippine anti-China demonstrations are but the smoke from smoldering nationalist fires. Moreover, the revolution in communications technology is facilitating participation, mobilization and avenues for expression by the tech-savvy public, further fanning the flames.

Access to resources plays a role. Despite years of nay-saying by so-called experts and analysts with agendas — there does appear to be considerable gas resources within the disputed areas of the South China Sea, particularly on Reed Bank claimed by both China and the Philippines.

But access to resources is not the prime progenitor of this struggle. The real issue is the political precedents that are being established. Other claimants in the South China Sea (Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam) as well as in the East China Sea (Japan) are closely watching this drama. They hope to glean lessons as to how to deal with China's claims and new assertiveness.

Because the United States is a military ally of the Philippines, which has appealed to both the U.S. and ASEAN for support, the Scarborough Shoal incident brings the two great powers face to face.

Indeed, the tectonic plates of the international political system are grinding against one another and the U.S. and China are on opposite sides of the divide — and perhaps history. The U.S. is yesterday's and today's sole superpower, but its credibility and legitimacy as such are fast eroding.

China represents the future, not just in terms of hard power but of culture and values as well. Indeed, China's leaders believe it is China's destiny to regain its prominence, if not pre-eminence, in the region and eventually the world. Some think China is even attempting to impose its own "Monroe Doctrine" on the region.

In classic realist theory, established powers strive to preserve the status quo that assures their top position and view emerging powers as potential threats.

Rising powers feel constrained by the status quo and naturally strive to stretch the sinews of the international system. They fear that the dominant power will try to snuff them out before they become a real rival. These are ancient political dynamics which have a primal tinge.

The U.S.-China rivalry is fast becoming a zero-sum game, and both are extremely suspicious of each other's intentions. And they are forcing Asian countries to choose between them. The current struggle will indicate the wisdom of doing so.

The strategic goal of the U.S. in Asia — besides spreading its values and way of life — is to deter Chinese aggression or coercion against its Asian "allies" — thus stifling China's rise. But some Southeast Asian countries perceive this as upsetting an already delicate geopolitical balance. And how it behaves regarding this dispute will say quite a bit about the future geopolitical environment.

So far, the U.S. has been very cautious and the Philippines has been disappointed — some say politically "orphaned" — and its leaders embarrassed by the lack of strong U.S. and ASEAN support. The Philippines is belatedly discovering that the U.S. and ASEAN have their own interests regarding China — both political and economic — and that these take priority.

Another fundamental question is whether ASEAN solidarity will survive — if it ever really existed. Will its members — in addition to Vietnam — back the Philippines, or continue to demure?

Will ASEAN remain central to regional security or be subordinated and marginalized by the U.S.-China rivalry?

Will the weakening of ASEAN encourage some members to move closer to the U.S.? And will China and the U.S. intensify their "soft power" struggle for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians?

There are also legal principles involved that could set precedents affecting the disputes in other parts of the South China Sea and even the East China Sea where China and Japan have a nasty dispute over sovereignty of islands there as well as resources. Will China and the Philippines agree to resolve the issue using the existing international legal system supported and partially shaped by the U.S.? Or will China try to change it to its advantage as have rising powers before it — like the U.S. itself. Will soft power implicitly backed by heavy "hard power" triumph over legal principles?

Cooperation is one option, although its prospects seem doubtful. Can the disputants agree to set aside the issues and jointly manage the fisheries in an agreed area thus providing a positive model for managing the rest of the disputes in the South China Sea?

Of course, the dispute may just fade away without a resolution. But even if it does, it has already revealed quite a bit about China's intentions, U.S. resolve, ASEAN cohesion and the role and rule of international law in such matters. Perhaps, in the end, cooperation will be born out of deadlock and its mother will be necessity. Otherwise, the region needs to prepare for more and worse dustups to come.

Mark Valencia, a former senior fellow with the East-West Center in Honolulu, is a maritime policy analyst.

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