China-Philippines Standoff: David And Goliath Both Stumble In Island Dispute

Op-Ed: The Philippines has overreacted in the ongoing dispute between Manila and Beijing, looking to build a regional coalition against China in claims over territory in the South China Sea. Still, Beijing must learn to manage the "small powers&a

Joint U.S.-Philippines naval training (US Navy)
Joint U.S.-Philippines naval training (US Navy)
Wang Xiaoxia

BEIJING - After a dozen days of standoff between Chinese and Philippine forces at Huangyan Island, the commanding general of the US Fleet Pacific Marine Force finally spoke up. "The United States and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty which guarantees that we get involved in each other's defense and that is self explanatory," Lieutenant General Duane Thiessen told reporters earlier this week.

More commonly known in the West as the Scarborough Shoal, the Huangyan Island has become the center of the latest confrontation between China and a neighbor in the South China Sea. And though Thiessen felt compelled to acknowledge the alliance with Manila, he stopped well short of signaling any U.S. intervention in the current dispute, adding that there's no "direct connection" between America and the Island.

But Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said the dispute will set a precedent for the future. "If other nations (in the South China Sea) do not stand up and take a clear stand like the Philippines is doing, they are bound to be affected by China's sovereignty claim," he said. "The freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the South China Sea are of great importance to many nations. All should consider what China is endeavouring to do at the Scarborough Shoal."

After the U.S. clearly showed its position, the Filipino government changed its attitude in seeking region-wide solidarity among the countries that face the same kind of territorial disputes with China. Nevertheless, it's unlikely the call of the Philippines will have too much echo. The reason is that up to now, while the Philippines is increasingly deploying its naval forces at Huangyan Island, China's presence there is essentially just that of a "civil power".

Even if the vessels are from the Chinese naval surveillance department or the fishery department, they are just official boats with limited arms. Compared to Navy ships and paramilitary Coast Guard boats, they have undoubtedly softened the image of a "powerful Chinese threat."

At the same time, what the other South China Sea nations see is China's patient resolute attitude as well as the confidence of its strength as a major power.

In contrast to China's confidence, on April 11th President Benigno Aquino III stressed that his purpose is "to ensure there is no violence at the Scarborough Shoal… If a violent clash is to occur, it will not be in anybody's interest." At the moment of his statement, there were exactly two Chinese civilian vessels with very limited arms facing the Filipino military forces. Ridiculous indeed.

Origins of a standoff

The so-called "Sino-Philippines Huangyan Island confrontation" is a non-event concocted by the Philippines. On April 8, twelve Chinese fishing boats were illegally blocked by Philippine warships in the Huangyan Island lagoon.

Two days later, the Filipino Navy sent in an armed squad and boarded the Chinese fishing vessels. They intended to claim Philippines sovereignty by exercising their administrative enforcement power in the territory. The Chinese Navy surveillance fleet soon arrived and thus began the standoff.

Similar maritime disputes in the South China Sea waters occur regularly. Nevertheless, the Philippines government does not deal with them with proper procedures via the usual diplomatic channels. Instead, it resorts to media campaigns and tries to render the event a "rare" provocation and threat from China.

The incident occurred on the eve of the annual US-Philippines joint military exercises, which took place on April 16-17. Just a coincidence?

The Philippines' approach is typical of a small state's poor exercise of diplomacy. Indeed, if a small nation were to use its diplomacy correctly, it would be able to leverage the balance between the powers to achieve its own benefit.

For example, this is the case of Vietnam which successfully navigated the subtle changes of Russo-US-Sino relations, unlike the two nations of the Korean peninsula who are obliged to accept the compromise and decisions on their own destiny imposed by the great powers.

To the Philippines, the current stalemate is attributed to their poor timing and unintelligent approach. It mistakenly gauged its own weight and China's reaction. More importantly, the Philippines broke the most important rule – the balance of powers, by leaning totally towards the American side. An unbalanced choice can only gain unbalanced results.

To the Chinese, the confrontation at Huangyan Island is no more than a moral or limited victory. Its claims over the South China Sea are still not recognized. It cannot make any genuine realistic gains if it does not find a more effective approach for dealing with the whims of small countries' "balancing tactics."

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - US Navy

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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