By: Juan L. Mercado
(Radio-TV’s “Reflections from Asia” is one of the more thoughtful programs today. It is anchored by Harvey B. Stockwin. As Financial Times of London correspondent, Stockwin who covered this region for years on the South China sea dispute offers perceptive insights. – JLM)
“WHILE Chinese athletes tried to gobble Olympic gold in London, half a world away, Chinese strategists were trying to gobble up vast tracts of contested territory in the South China Sea,” Boston Herald reports. “Without strong push back, Beijing may be able to do just that."
A two-part Chinese strategy evolved: (1) Stop the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from asserting its views; and (2) Assert actual possession to buffer up China's claims.
China reduced ASEAN, “to near-impotence” by manipulating its satellite, Cambodia. As host country this year, Phnom Penh vetoed the communiqué traditionally issued, since 1967, when ASEAN Foreign Ministers conclude their meeting.
Shredding the communiqué resulted silence on a tentative code of international conduct for the South China Sea that ASEAN members hoped would replace the vague declaration agreed to by China and ASEAN in 2002.
What has happened to the latest draft? Stories vary. Some who claim to have seen the new draft maintain it still is too weak.
The code should have been drafted by the ASEAN nations involved in the South China Sea, namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, possibly Indonesia. Cambodia and Laos receive substantial aid from Beijing. They don’t border the South China Sea. Yet, they dabbled in the drafting of a code that does not concern them.
(Cambodia recalled its Ambassador to Manila Hos Sereythonh after the Foreign Office summoned him to explain his remarks accusing the Philippines and Vietnam of “dirty politics” in seeking a common Asean stand on the on the West Philippine Sea dispute.)
Beijing will water down the final joint draft. “ASEAN will have no choice but to accept it…. China treats as an undeniable fact that it must possess the whole of the South China Sea.
Beijing midwifed a new government for the South China: Sansha City with 45 legislators, elected by the 1,100 claimed residents of the prefecture. They’re “scattered in the Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands.”
China followed up by announcing the setting up of a PLA divisional headquarters, and naming two senior colonels to be the garrison commander and the political commissar.
The US State Department snapped: "China's upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City, and establishment of a new military garrison covering disputed areas of the South China Sea, run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region."
How real is this new government? Sansha is on two square kilometers of Yongxing Dao, one of the Paracel Islands, fell under South Vietnamese control until 1974. The People’s Liberation Army ousted the Vietnamese from the Paracels.
By Chinese reckoning, Zhongsha islands include the completely separate Scarborough Shoal. This is the subject of a recent Chinese dispute with the Philippines, during a stand-off between fishing and naval ships. .
China claims include Macclesfield Bank which has neither land nor population in Sansha prefecture. Does Macclesfield Bank have, below it, 200 billion barrels of oil, and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas? No thorough surveys of the South China Sea's potential riches have yet been conducted.
Since Macclesfield Bank is entirely under water, it is questionable, under the United Nations Law of the Sea, to which China has acceded, whether it can be claimed by any nation.
Perhaps, to avoid future questions arising, the controlled Chinese press reported that Sansha prefecture would "not only govern island groups, many of them consisting of rocks and atolls, but also two million square kilometers of the South China Sea over which China claims jurisdiction".
In essence China has stated it owns the islands of the South China Sea. In the Spratlys, no nation occupying various islands there is going to pack up and leave, just because China proclaims itself as the landlord.
The next largest Spratly island, Pagasa, has an area of 37 hectares. It has been occupied by Philippine troops since the 1970s. (It has a town government and elementary school.)
Pagasa means hope in Tagalog. “Manila's hope must be that it does not repeat what happened nearby at Mischief Reef, where Philippine carelessness gave China an opening to establish a military fort. Since then, China refused to vacate the Reef.”
Next door Taiping island has the only fresh water supply in the South China Sea. It also and has the best runway for aircraft in the Spratlys. Last month Taipei indicated plans to further extend the runway. A Vietnamese army battalion of 600 troops is on Troung Sa island.
“Differences are therefore not being resolved. Regional tensions are increasing, Stockwin says. “The intense Chinese nationalism, which forced Beijing to dream that Sansha City ruled all of the South China Sea, could also force China to try and make that dream come true.