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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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