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Manila testing Beijing's patience
Publication Date : 12-05-2014
On May 6, the Philippines again created trouble in the South China Sea by illegally detaining 11 Chinese fishermen and seizing a boat in the waters off China's Half Moon Shoal in the Nansha Islands. On the same day, the Philippine military announced a so-called South China Sea defense plan, saying that to protect the Philippines' "national interest", it will resist "China's increasingly assertive behaviour in the South China Sea".
The Philippines has recently been creating trouble in the South China Sea. It has sent a supply ship to the Ren'ai Reef off China's Nansha Islands, held joint military exercises with the United States, illegally detained Chinese fishermen and boats, and announced a South China Sea "defense plan", highlighting its increasingly aggressive stance on the the South China Sea issue.
China has long been advocating the use of peaceful means to resolve international disputes and remains committed to resolving the South China Sea issue on the basis of universally accepted maritime laws, for which it has even put forward the idea of "shelving disputes and carrying out common development".
Some countries involved in the South China Sea disputes, including the Philippines, have taken China's tolerance as cowardice and are acting aggressively. The Philippines' provocative actions challenge China's ability to safeguard its national sovereignty. Since the Philippines does not measure up to China either in economic or military strength, why does it dare to repeatedly create trouble in the South China Sea?
The answer lies in the US-Philippine alliance. Before US President Barack Obama paid a state visit to the Philippines, the two countries signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, reinforcing the US-Philippine military alliance. The agreement gives American forces temporary access to selected military bases and allows them to preposition fighter jets and ships. Also, it allows US forces to train Philippine troops to strengthen their maritime defense, and improve their humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities. Reassured by Washington's security commitment, an emboldened Manila is now trying to act tough over the South China Sea dispute.
The Philippines is not alone in thinking that it will become invincible because of its alliance with the US; some other Asian countries, too, think so. And the US is taking advantage of these countries to implement its strategic rebalancing to Asia to weave a new Asia-Pacific security pattern.
The US' strategic rebalancing has given the Philippines an opportunity to fish in troubled waters. The US believes that China's rapid rise has broken the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, so it has to implement its "pivot to Asia" strategy.
Manila believes the main goal of Washington's rebalancing strategy is to prevent China from replacing the US as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific. Encouraged by this assumption, the Philippines is using the US muscle to "legitimise" its illegal occupation of China's islands and reefs. The fact is, the US' rebalancing strategy has failed to restore peace and stability in the region. On the contrary, it has disrupted the relatively stable strategic situation and raised the risk of conflicts and clashes. Given such a situation, the US should persuade its allies not to create trouble in the South China Sea.
Besides, the collusion among some countries locked in disputes with China over the South China Sea has also prompted the Philippines to take provocative actions against China. The Philippines and Vietnam illegally occupy many of China's islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Therefore, the two countries usually act in collusion over the South China Sea issue.
Just a day after Manila detained 11 Chinese fishermen, Vietnamese vessels intentionally collided with Chinese vessels in order to disrupt normal drilling operations by the China side in its waters. The incident reflected that Hanoi and Manila have joined hands to hype up the South China Sea issue to illegally seize China's islands and reefs. What Manila doesn't realise is that, its provocative actions are like the proverbial rock, which it has lifted only to drop it on its feet.
The overwhelming global trend is of peace, development and cooperation. So, the Philippines will be opposed by countries that are eager to maintain peace and stability in the region. And ultimately, the Philippine people will protest against the US' strengthened military presence in their country because of the painful memories of American colonial rule in the Philippines.
Moreover, given the progress of a "new type of major-power relationship" between China and the US, Washington might eventually disappoint its Asian allies when it comes to their disputes with Beijing. After all, US foreign policy has always given priority to its own interests. Also, it is doubtful whether the US will enter into full confrontation with China and seriously damage its interests just to humor its allies.
Above all, the Philippines should stop creating trouble in the South China Sea and testing Beijing's patience, because even with US help it cannot win an all-out confrontation with China. It's time the Philippines realised that the countries occupying Chinese territory will end up paying heavy price.
Furthermore, the South China Sea disputes are between China and some Southeast Asian countries. So, the involvement of other parties will only complicate the matter further. China has always advocated friendly negotiations with disputing countries to resolve the disputes, because it believes that they can properly handle the issue to maintain peace and stability in the region. If the Philippines (and other disputing countries) share this belief, it must release the Chinese fishermen as soon as possible, instead of complicating the matter further.
The author is a professor and director of International Security Research Center, affiliated to PLA International Relations University.