China watch
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Babe Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - September 1, 2019 - 12:00am

Senator Dan Sullivan, a leading Republican Senator from Alaska, invited me to his State for meetings and engagements with businessmen, leaders of the Fil-Am community, university students as well as local officials that included Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy and Anchorage mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

The highlight of my visit was a forum organized by the Alaska World Affairs Council and the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce where Senator Sullivan and I engaged in an in-depth discussion about the alliance between the United States and the Philippines, bilateral defense and security cooperation, trade and investment opportunities as well as people-to-people ties. 

Among the issues that was extensively discussed with the Senator is our situation with China and disputed maritime territories. In July 2016, the Philippines obtained a favorable ruling over a maritime dispute from the UN tribunal which invalidated the sweeping claims of China (premised on its nine-dash line extending hundreds of miles to the south and east of Hunan and covering some 90 percent of the disputed waters), saying the giant nation had no legal basis to claim historic rights over the South China Sea. China however did not participate in the proceedings and had rejected the ruling, with Chinese president Xi Jinping saying China will never accept any claims based on the ruling.

Undoubtedly, Senator Sullivan was very much interested in the recent working visit of President Duterte to China and the outcome of the bilateral meeting between President Rody and President Xi. 

On many occasions, the president had said that he would take up the 2016 ruling of the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at an opportune time – which he did during his talk with his Chinese counterpart. According to Malacañang, President Duterte was “steadfast in raising with President Xi concerns central to the Philippines’ claim in the West Philippine Sea, which include the ruling held by the PCA in the Hague,” and that the president held firm to the position that “the arbitral award is final, binding and not subject to appeal.”

Not surprisingly, President Xi stood pat on his government’s position that they do not recognize the arbitral ruling, reiterating that they did not attend the hearings. Despite their opposing positions, both leaders agreed to continue the conversation on how the issue can be resolved peacefully, and that they would work together “on the basis of mutual trust and good faith to manage the South China Sea issue.”

President Xi said that despite the complicated changes in the region and the world, he wanted to work with President Duterte on strengthening the two nations’ relationship. There was also talk about joint exploration for oil and gas in the disputed territories – a proposal that has been met with skepticism on the part of many Filipinos, saying they find it hard to trust our giant neighbor. 

One bright spot is that Xi also sees the need to craft a “Code of Conduct” (COC) in the South China Sea. The Philippines is the designated country coordinator for the COC, with the president having been very vocal about his frustration over the delay in the crafting of the final version of the COC, and even blamed China for the delay. Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua however said they would like to finalize the COC while the Philippines is the designated country coordinator of China-ASEAN relations, and that China is also concerned about freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight.

The South China Sea is an important waterway for trade with over $5.3 trillion worth of goods transiting through it annually, with an estimated $1.2 trillion of the amount attributed to trade with the US. Obviously, he who controls the important waterway controls the trade, which is why many nations including the US want to maintain freedom of navigation in the SCS. 

US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein during his recent visit to Manila was firm when he said that, “There will be no letup in our willingness or our ability to fly or sail where we need to and when we need to. That’s our commitment to the region.”

A few days ago, the Pentagon also issued a strongly worded statement, accusing China of employing bullying tactics in the disputed maritime territories, citing the Asian nation’s “coercive interference” in oil and gas exploration activities in territories claimed by Vietnam.

“China will not win the trust of its neighbors nor the respect of the international community by maintaining its bullying tactics,” the US Department of Defense said in a statement.

China’s actions to “coerce ASEAN claimants, station offensive military systems, and enforce an unlawful maritime claim raise serious doubts over China’s credibility,” the statement further said. The Pentagon also reiterated the continued support of the United States to its allies to “ensure freedom of navigation and economic opportunity throughout the entire Indo-Pacific.”

The US has been increasing its “freedom of navigation operations,” with US Navy vessel Wayne E. Meyer – an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer – traveling within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef (Kagitingan) and Mischief Reef (Panganiban) several days ago. A statement from the Seventh Fleet said that Wayne E. Meyer conducted the FONOP “in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law. US forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including the South China Sea.”

Our continuing engagement with China is carefully being watched by the world, looking at how we will eventually resolve our conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

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