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Pacific experts: Philippines must lead a united front to confront China over South China Sea

By Jayvee Vallejera

Manila—The Philippines can push back against China’s bullying behavior by allying itself with affected countries in Asia, according to Pacific security observers.

But as the intensifying conflict between China and the Philippines over their competing territorial claims in the South China Sea— alternately referred to as the West Philippine Sea— portends dangerous times for the region and giving the diplomatic route a shot may be worth a try, according to a Pacific island leader.

The 13th Virtual International Conference on the South China Sea hosted by the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea on May 14 highlighted the Philippines' role being at the forefront of the territorial dispute with Beijing.

Epeli Maisema, of the Cook Islands' Ministry of Marine Resources, said competing claims over exclusive economic zones are not new in the Pacific. He said with the help of regional Pacific allies like the South Pacific Commission (now known as the Pacific Community) and Forum Fisheries Agency, as well as other countries— the Cook Islands has created a mechanism where they work out and finalize maritime boundaries.

Maisema said the tuna stocks in the region generate about $3.2 billion in annual earnings, so resolving disputes is important for every island state that shares in the fruits of the sea.

“We do have overlapping maritime boundaries and overlapping extended continental shelf claims” but with the help of consortium partners supported by Australia and New Zealand and regional allies like SPC, these Pacific countries come together and meet face to face regularly to discuss and attempt to resolve differences, he said, adding that “this is an ongoing effort.”

“We are working together in the region, in the Pacific way to solve our boundary issue and we do it in the Pacific in the spirit of talanoa,” he said. That means resolving disputes not only purely via diplomatic channels but also through social means such as sports events or cultural exchanges.

It will also benefit the Philippines if it does not face China alone but also build

up its alliances and enlist the support of big countries like the United States, he said.

Dr. Carlyle A. Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy of the University of New South Wales, agreed with Maisema, saying it would greatly help the Philippines’ cause to build alliances and mutual agreements with other countries so they could provide a unified front against China.

“The problem is, so far over the last couple of years, nothing has made China back off. Can we do this on our own? Probably not. So we must expand out,” he said, such as building alliances with the United States and Japan.

But Thayer acknowledged that deterrence and diplomatic initiatives alone do not seem to work with China. The Philippines can bolster its efforts with mutual defense treaties that would aid the nation in case of an armed attack, and joint naval patrols in the region.

The Philippines will benefit from U.S. assistance in resupply runs to Philippine-held islands in the South China Sea, joint exercises and military visits from other countries, he added.

Antonio T. Carpio, a retired justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, said losing the Philippines’ EEZ to China’s nine-dash-line claim over the West Philippine Sea will devastate the country’s economy. China calls that nine-dash-line—now 10-dash-line—its international boundary. It encompasses the entire high seas of the South China Sea and vast areas of the exclusive economic zones of five coastal states: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

Carpio said if China succeeds in making the 10-dash-line its international boundary, the Philippines would lose 80 percent of its EEZ in the South China Sea and energy resources that would gravely impact the country’s fuel supply (about 20 percent of the national energy requirement) and result in 12- to 14-hour rotating power outages in the main island of Luzon.

The West Philippine Sea also supplies about 20 percent of the Philippines annual fish catch, he said.

“This will be a terrible blow to poor Philippine fishermen living in provinces facing the West Philippine Sea,” Carpio added.

He warned that if China succeeds with its claim, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would collapse. If UNCLOS won’t apply in the South China Sea, then it won’t apply in the rest of the world as well, Carpio said.

“The might-is-right rule will prevail in the oceans and seas of our planet. There will be an arms race among coastal states because, without UNCLOS, the only way to protect a country’s existing [EEZ] is to acquire warships, warplanes and missiles,” he said. “It will be a terrible world to live in.”

Capt. Carl O. Schuster, a retired U.S. Navy officer, praised the Philippines’ efforts in showing the world how China is behaving in the South China Sea and how the country is pushing back against the communist nation’s bullying tactics.

“The Philippines' exposure of [China’s] bullying has embarrassed Beijing and forced it to change its political warfare effort,” he said, and that none of China’s claims have taken root in the international media.

The webinar’s theme was “The Current Challenges on the Stability, Security and Peace in the South China (West Philippine) Sea.”


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