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Spratlys row a test of President Aquino mettle

The celebration on Sunday of the 113th anniversary of Philippine independence was resonant with the theme of national sovereignty, but it was drowned out by messages concerning the territorial conflict over disputed islands in the South China Sea, including those claimed by the Philippines.

The messages also raised the first foreign policy challenge to the mettle of the Aquino administration to defend Philippine territorial claims to the Spratly Islands.

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The first message emanates from the warning by China that the United States should not get involved in the disputes over the Spratly Islands since it is “not a party to the dispute.”

The warning came as the Philippines and the United States prepare to hold joint naval exercises starting on June 28 at an undisclosed site where the Philippines’ Naval Forces West (Navforwest) operates. The site is believed to be in the Sulu Sea and nearby waters.

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The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ spokesperson, Commodore Jose Miguel Rodriguez, said the exercises, called “Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training” (Carat), had been programmed since last year.

Officials said the exercises were in accordance with the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty and aimed at testing the capabilities of the two navies to undertake “freedom of navigation operations.”

Heightened tensions

The exercises are going to take place amid heightening tensions in what the Philippines calls the “West Philippine Sea” and the others call the “South China Sea” fueled by Philippine protests over alleged intrusions by Chinese vessels into Philippine territorial waters.

The second message: Against claims by Philippine military authorities that the exercises were planned within the framework of the defense treaty, the United States was less reassuring of military aid if the conflict escalates into an armed confrontation between the Philippines and China.

The US Embassy issued a statement on Saturday in reaction to a Malacañang statement expressing confidence that Washington would honor its commitment under the defense treaty to come to the aid of an endangered ally.

“The US does not take sides in regional territorial disputes,” said US Embassy spokesperson Rebecca Thompson.

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Thompson said the United States was “troubled by incidents in the South China Sea in recent days that have raised tensions in the region” and that Washington opposed “the threat of force” by any of the countries with rival claims on the Spratlys.

No automatic clause

The defense treaty is nebulous on the circumstances in which the United States would come in to defend an ally against armed attack. It merely says the treaty partners “declare publicly and formally their sense of unity and their common determination to defend themselves against external armed attack.”

There is no automatic US intervention clause to aid attacked allies, and amateur spokespersons in Malacañang are extremely naïve to expect automatic US intervention if the conflict escalates into war.

At a security forum in Singapore on June 4, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that clashes may erupt in the South China Sea unless nations with conflicting claims adopt mechanisms to settle disputes peacefully.

At the same forum, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin warned that “actions by other states … unnecessarily make other states like the Philippines worried and concerned.” He said such a sense of insecurity also results when ordinary fishermen are warned by foreign vessels to leave the area.

Manila’s fears

Gazmin’s warnings followed Malacañang statements accusing China of undermining peace and stability in Asia by allegedly sending naval vessels to intimidate rival claimants in the Spratly Islands.

Manila cited several incidents from February to May when the Chinese Navy allegedly opened fire on Filipino fishermen, intimidated a Philippine oil exploration ship, and put posts and buoys in a Philippine-claimed area.

Manila said the unloading of construction materials on a reef claimed by the Philippines raised fears of undermining a regional agreement designed to avoid actions that “complicate or escalate disputes.”

Freedom of navigation

Gen. Liang Guanglie, China’s defense minister, rejected at the forum criticisms that China was acting belligerently in the South China Sea.

Speaking after Vietnam and the Philippines accused China of aggressive behavior, Liang denied that China was threatening security in the strategically and potentially energy-rich waters. He said “freedom of navigation has never been impeded.”

On June 9, China warned its neighbors to stop searching for oil in the contested region without its permission.

Search for oil

A day after Beijing warned Manila against unilateral actions, Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao issued another warning: “We’re calling on all parties to stop searching the possibility of exploiting resources in the area where China has claims.”

China issued the warnings on the heels of a report from Hanoi that China, for the second time in two weeks, had harassed Vietnamese vessels conducting seismic surveys within Vietnam’s continental shelf. Hanoi declared it was determined to protect its “incontestable” sovereignty over areas it claims in the South China Sea.

Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam has no mutual defense treaty with the United States and has had armed encounters with China over territorial issues.

Diplomacy backed by guns

With a Navy too weak to effectively stop incursions of Chinese naval vessels, the Philippines is not taking the aggressive actions of China in the South China Sea lying down. It has signaled it is taking steps to acquire defense equipment from the United States.

The new Philippine ambassador to Washington, Jose Cuisia Jr., has asked the defense department in Manila to prepare an inventory of weapons to beef up the country’s military capability. The weapons list is regarded as the first step in negotiating arms purchases from the United States.

I’m told that some of these weapons could at least sink Chinese vessels invading Philippine structures in the area.

Diplomatic settlement is still held as a priority over armed action, but diplomacy also needs to be backed by guns—to be credible.

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TAGS: Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, Diplomacy, Spratlys
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