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The Good Neighbors

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By: JV Arcena

Experts have warned that a cold war is heating up the already turbulent waters in the South China Sea.

Maritime superpowers — the United States and China — are playing a high-stakes game of cat and mouse in the high seas. That they are both major nuclear powers makes the already fragile situation even more worrisome.

In 2018, Washington firmed up its Indo-Pacific strategy based on its vision of a rules-based architecture, even as many have observed that it is another means to impose American hegemony in the region. While it is anchored on its three pillars of preparedness, strengthening partnerships and promoting a more networked region, the strategy is shaping to be one that has China as its main target to rein in.

The US has since been joined by Australia, Japan and India in the so-called “QUAD” alliance of Indo-Pacific powers committed to promote governance and democracy. This quadrilateral defense arrangement envisions an “Asian Arc of Democracy” — seen as a counterbalance to Beijing’s opportunism in the South China Sea.

Simultaneous naval drills have been conducted by the US with its democratic allies this year, following a major policy statement by Washington on the South China Sea where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared China’s nine-dash-line claims in the disputed maritime area as “illegal.”

“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them. The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Pompeo said.

The US official took it a step further, making an implicit backing of Southeast Asian claimants that include the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.

“America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region,” Pompeo said.

China’s own People Liberation Army Navy has recently wrapped up five days of drills around Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Beijing was likewise quick to accuse America of destabilizing the region even as it dismissed the presence of US aircraft carriers as being mere “paper tigers” in a report by state-controlled Global Times.

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“Some countries outside the region often travel thousands of miles to the South China Sea to engage in large-scale military activities, and show off their power, which is the fundamental reason that affects the stability in the South China Sea,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said.

What makes the South China Sea a region of such geostrategic importance?

First, it is a vital artery of trade for many of the world’s largest economies. A 2015 US Department of Defense report said at least $5.3 trillion worth of goods moves through the sea annually, which is about 30 percent of global maritime trade. Of the figure, yearly trade with the US accounts for $1.2 trillion. Second, there are 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in deposits under the sea based on the estimates of the US Energy Information Agency.

This show of military might — the deployment of Navy aircraft carriers, the overflights of heavy bombers — make the already troubled waters a flashpoint for armed conflict.

It is one thing for the US, backed by its QUAD alliance, and China to be trading verbal barbs. It is another to be ratcheting tensions with their respective frigates and destroyers — on the back of a historical claim that has long been invalidated by the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration, or in the name of the lofty ideal of freedom of navigation.

Heightened tensions do not augur well for a country like the Philippines, and for the entire region, for that matter.

Understanding fully where the country lies in the grand scheme of things, President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the Department of National Defense not to involve the country in naval exercises in the South China Sea, except those conducted within our national waters — the 12 mile distance from our shores.

“If one country’s action is considered as belligerent, another tension will normally rise,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, calling on all parties to “exercise prudence and carefulness so that there will be no miscalculations that could further increase the tension.”

Any good neighbor would want calm, peaceful waters in the region. But sometimes good intentions do not necessarily translate into good actions, or at best, are not viewed as such. The perception game is equally dangerous, especially in this part of the world where the culture of saving face is an important concept.

Manila has already won in its arbitral case against Beijing on the latter’s sweeping claim over the entire South China Sea. Moving forward, top diplomats from both countries have likened the overlapping maritime claims to a “pebble” where one might one day stumble, “but in the meantime we can go around it” through other avenues of cooperation.

There is no giving up on our claims. The pebble remains a pebble. But we cannot afford to get caught between a pebble and a hard place if heightened tensions in the South China Sea reach boiling point.

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