MANILA, Philippines – “The Philippines is a true leader in Southeast Asia on rule of law issues.”
The former commander of American forces in the Pacific hailed the Philippines for being the only nation to challenge China's excessive claims in the South China Sea before an international tribunal.
Retired Admiral Samuel Locklear, former commander of the US Pacific Command (Pacom), said the Philippines' historic arbitration case against China was a bold move to stand up to Beijing's increasing aggression in disputed waters.
“Going to the international tribunal at the UN to challenge China on the 9-dash line was a very brave step by the Filipino government, by President [Benigno] Aquino, Secretary [Albert] del Rosario, and the team that did that. So they have to be very much applauded. That is exactly the kind of lane that US policy is in,” Locklear said in an interview with Rappler.
As head of Pacom from 2012 to May 2015, Locklear warned against China's massive land reclamation in the South China Sea, and its construction of runways and military facilities. (READ: EDCA equips Philippines as China builds islands - ex-US admiral)
These are acts that the Philippines questioned in its arbitration case. Manila is asking the tribunal based in The Hague to strike down the 9-dash line as inconsistent with international law.
Vietnam and Malaysia, which also has claims to the sea, expressed interest in the case as observers. Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and the United Kingdom likewise watched the proceedings in late November.
Vietnamese and Indonesian officials said that they might follow the Philippines' lead and take China to court as they do not recognize the 9-dash line. Beijing uses the line to claim over 90% of the strategic waters believed to have vast reserves of oil and gas.
Policy shift from next PH president?
Observers are concerned about the continuity of Manila's China policy after the 6-year term of President Benigno Aquino III, the most vocal Philippine leader on the maritime dispute. Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned that it would be “catastrophic” if Aquino's successor withdraws the arbitration case.
Christopher Johnson, senior adviser at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the stakes will be high for the next Philippine president.
“What's been happening with Chinese island-building and some of the other issues has kind of shifted the debate here to some degree in such a way that, I think, it would be very difficult for a new Filipino president to make a radical policy shift,” Johnson told Rappler.
Johnson said candidates for the Philippine presidency may have different views on engaging with China on trade but there is “general consensus” that Aquino's South China Sea policy needs to be maintained.
There are 5 presidential bets. Aquino's partymate, former interior secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, promises to continue his initiatives. Front-runner Senator Grace Poe said she will pursue arbitration but boost economic and cultural ties with China. Vice President Jejomar Binay wants a “joint venture” with Beijing, saying “China has money. We need capital.”
Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte warned that China's island-building could usher in a return of US bases. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago though led a Senate vote against a military deal granting the US access to Philippine bases to deter China.
Before he steps down, Aquino rallied the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to unite against China, and to conclude a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The President used his last ASEAN summit in November to push for the code, delayed for 13 years reportedly due to Chinese stalling.
For CSIS Southeast Asia Deputy Director Murray Hiebert, ASEAN's diversity and consensus-based decision-making make it difficult for the bloc to come up with a unified stand on the South China Sea.
“You have countries as developed as Singapore, and as poor as Laos. You have communist countries, and then very democratic countries like Indonesia and the Philippines so it's really tough. At some point, I don't know if it makes sense to consider a 'coalition of the willing,' to use that word, so if 7 countries are ready to go ahead with something, we'll do it,” Hiebert said.
ASEAN members include wealthy Singapore, oil-rich Brunei, and developing countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and poorer nations like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
To strengthen ASEAN, Hiebert said the 10 members must rethink its mode of funding the organization.
“You can't have all 10 countries from poor Laos to rich Singapore contributing the same amount, and expecting to establish an institution that can really have the staff, the resources to do the kinds of work they need to do. You can say, 'We all have one vote but let Singapore or Brunei contribute substantially more than Laos or Myanmar.'”
File photo by Lauro Montellano Jr/Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau
'China can't be treated like a pariah'
Locklear and the CSIS analysts said the South China Sea will remain a long-term challenge for the region.
Beyond the dispute, America's former top Navy officer said that China's military, economic and diplomatic rise will test global leaders.
“You can't treat China like we used to treat the Soviet Union because that's a Cold War mentality, which won't work with this because the interdependencies of China and the rest of the world economically, socially, are so different than what we experienced in the last century with the Cold War,” Locklear said.
The former commander said the solution is not as simple as treating the world's second largest economy like a pariah.
“In the end, the challenge will be how do all of us, as well as China, work to bring China into an environment as a net provider of security rather than a net user of security. That's yet to be determined if that can happen that way. A lot of that depends on the decisions China makes, and some of this will play out on the South China Sea stage as we go forward.” – Rappler.com