Jamil Maidan Flores
To many people, it sounded crazy when they first heard of it. But the more you think about it, the more the method makes sense.
This is the Philippine government’s proposal for casting bread on the troubled waters of the South China Sea. It’s called “What Is Ours Is Ours, and With What Is Disputed, We Can Work Toward Joint Cooperation.”
That would be a sweetly reasonable statement if it did not refer to the territorial and sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. But it does.
In a nutshell, the proposal is to segregate the parts of the South China Sea that are disputed from those that are undisputed.
Those that are undisputed are to be left to their sole claimants. As to the disputed areas — well, the disputants can negotiate with one another in a way that benefits all.
Herein lies the “madness” of the proposal: Since China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, then any part of it that is also claimed by any other country must be disputed. To be able to segregate the disputed from the undisputed parts, as the Philippines proposes, you must first persuade China to give up at least some of its claims.
That would be asking for the moon. Chinese officials have repeatedly said that the entire South China Sea is a “matter of core interest” to China — like Tibet and Taiwan.
A senior Indonesian official in the listening room of the Asean Regional Forum in Bali last July laughed when he heard the Philippine foreign minister explain the proposal. “That is putting the cart before the horse,” he said. He has since changed his mind.
An Asean foreign minister wryly told his colleagues: “How can there be an undisputed part of the South China Sea when there is a country that claims all of it?”
But in the end, the Asean Ministerial Meeting, under Indonesian leadership, tasked its senior officials to seriously study the proposal with the help of legal experts.
That’s because you can see the method in the madness. The proposal is based on the confident assertion that China’s claims to such parts of the South China Sea as the Reed Bank area, the James Shoal area, portions of the Natuna Sea, the Vanguard Bank and Nam Con Son are all without basis under international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory.
In effect, the proposal simply ignores the Chinese claims. When the Philippines says, “What’s ours is ours, and as to what is disputed, let’s talk about it,” China is out of the equation.
If the Philippine proposal is endorsed by a united Asean, then China will be in a bind. It will have to defend its claims before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, or the International Court of Justice or some other appropriate body that it will agree upon with the opposing litigants. If that happens, the Philippine government and most Asean members are confident that China will lose.
But suppose China resorts to brute force and asserts its claims by sinking the puny navies of the other claimants? Then it will earn the anger not only of Asean but the rest of the international community.
What’s more, it will give the US Navy the perfect excuse to take a more aggressive stance in Southeast Asia. And it will yield the moral high ground to the United States in the battle for the hearts and minds of Asia.
Is there a third way for China out of this dilemma? Of course, there is. And that is what the Philippines is hoping China will see.
China can simply exercise soft power and negotiate a win-win solution with the other claimants. One of the first steps it can take in that direction is to work with Asean in the formulation of a legally binding Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
Then it will be much easier for China to convince the world that its rise as a world power is benign. The doves within the Chinese establishment will have the upper hand over the hawks. The United States will have no justification to resort to its own brand of gunboat diplomacy.
The South China Sea will still be a powder keg — but with a longer fuse.
The Philippine proposal, then, is a shot across the bow for China to heed. It is also an invitation to a spectacular and productive diplomatic tango with Asean.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has worked as a speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992. The views expressed are his own.