Philippine Pres. Benigno Aquino III heads for Vladivostok, Russia this week to attend the 20th summit of leaders of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to discuss “regional economic integration and cooperation to foster innovative growth.” While at the summit, China’s President Hu Jintao has asked to meet Pres. Aquino in what will be their first meeting since the maritime standoff at Scarborough Shoal began five months ago.
The speculation from Manila is that Hu sought the meeting with Aquino to discuss the two countries’ territorial disputes. But Foreign Affairs Undersecretary (USec) Laura del Rosario expressed the government’s hope “that whatever political issues we have, we can just separate it from economic issues and trade issues, and, if that is possible, the agenda for the meeting will be on reinvigorating trade between the two countries.”
“It will be more like assuring each other that we should go back to the starting point when everything was fine,” USec del Rosario added. “If you look at the premise of diplomatic relations, it’s basically maintaining the status quo of peace.”
The hope of Peace in the Scarborough Shoal was the object of the Global Day of Prayer that was held in more than 300 churches in 22 nations all over the world on August 21, a coordinated event that was spearheaded by the US Pinoys for Good Governance (uspgg.org). It’s New York-based chair, Loida Nicolas-Lewis, saw in Hu’s request for a meeting with Aquino at the APEC summit “an answered prayer”.
“War is not good for anybody, especially the Philippines,” Lewis said. “We don’t have China’s massive warships but we have houses of worship. Prayer is our greatest weapon because we are a people of faith.”
Faith is commonly defined in the dictionary as “a belief that is not based on proof or material.” Sometimes it is a belief that flies in the face of logic.
Can we expect any progress in the APEC meeting in Vladivostok between Hu and Aquino?
Aquino’s goal is to downgrade the tensions between China and the Philippines and to focus on economic issues. He knows China’s position on the territorial disputes and China knows his position. Nothing will be gained from further elaboration of their respective arguments about who owns the shoals, islets and islands within the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Hu will likely concur with Aquino that both countries should just focus on economic and trade issues.
If the topic somehow veers to the Scarborough Shoal issue, Hu will likely ask that the “status quo of peace” be maintained. After all, China now effectively controls the Shoal by deceptively employing its own version of “rope a dope”. The New York Times this week revealed that last May, the Obama administration “quietly negotiated a deal that called for Filipino and Chinese vessels to leave the shoal. But the Chinese left behind a rope that still blocks the entrance to the lagoon.” According to USec del Rosario, after the two Philippine ships left the Shoal, “three Chinese vessels remained just outside the lagoon, preventing any Filipino fishing vessels from entering.” As the New York Times concluded, “China has effectively established a new status quo at the shoal and appears determined not to back down.”
Although he has promised to do so on several occasions, Aquino has not yet given the order for the two Philippine government vessels previously deployed there to return. Hu may counsel Aquino not to provoke China by returning the ships to the Shoal.
Hu is China’s president because he is the General Party Secretary of the ruling Communist Party of China which will hold a party congress in Beijing in October this year. At the party congress which will mark the changing of the guard, Hu will step down as paramount leader of China and give way to designated successor Xi Jinping who will then assume the formal title of president of China in March of 2013.
Because he is a “lame duck” president in his last month in office, Hu will likely not embark on any bold initiatives for peace in his talks with Aquino. His task is simple: maintain the ”status quo of peace” so that the transfer of power in Beijing in October will proceed without conflict.
What is the “status quo of peace”?
Aside from seizing total control of the Scarborough Shoal (124 nautical miles from Zambales), China is building new structures in the Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef), 70 nautical miles from Palawan, which China seized in 1995. Aside from a 4 story military fortress that was built over the reef in 1999, China has recently added a windmill, solar panels, a concrete platform suitable for use as a helipad and a basketball court.
China has also consolidated its control of Subi Reef, an islet just 12 nautical miles southwest of Pag-asa Island, which is part of the Kalayaan Island Group. China erected a four-story structure, including a lighthouse and a powerful radar station on it.
On June 21, China established a new national prefecture which it named Sansha, with headquarters on Woody Island (“Yongxing”) in the Paracel Islands which is within the 200 mile EEZ of Vietnam. This new Sansha prefecture, according to the official Xinhua news agency, “administers over 200 islets and 2 million square kilometers of water” which just about covers the entire South China Sea. China has appointed 45 legislators to govern the 1,000 Chinese people on Woody Island, along with a 15-member Standing Committee, a mayor and a vice mayor.
As Sen. James Webb (D-Virginia) explained in his op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal on August 20 (“The South China Sea’s Gathering Storm”), “These political acts have been matched by military and economic expansion. On July 22, China’s Central Military Commission announced that it would deploy a garrison of soldiers to guard the islands in the area. On July 31, it announced a new policy of “regular combat-readiness patrols” in the South China Sea. And China has now begun offering oil exploration rights in locations recognized by the international community as within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.”
Why is China engaged in this massive hegemonic expansion in the South China Sea?
The New York Times answered this question in its August 18, 2012 editorial (“Asia’s Roiling Sea”):”It is not hard to see why everyone wants a piece of the action. The sea is not only an important trade route but is also rich in oil, natural gas, fishing and mineral resources. Nations are fighting over islands and even specks of rocks to stake their claims.”
China’s Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources estimates the reserves located in the Philippines’ Recto Bank – barely 50 miles from Palawan – at 17.7 billion tons or approximately 213 billion barrels of oil worth trillions of dollars. That is enough oil to supply China’s voracious energy needs for the next century. The China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) has deployed “Marine Oil 981”, a 31,000 ton giant deepwater oil drilling platform that carries out oil explorations up to a depth of 3,000 meters and is equipped with a drill that can go as deep as 12,000 meters. China expects to pump out the equivalent of 500 million barrels of oil by the year 2020, approximately $50 billion per year.
While Filipinos are praying for peace in the Scarborough Shoal, China’s government-controlled media are educating China’s1.3 billion people about the issues involved in the Spratly Islands. Check out the youtube video: “80% Chinese want to slap Filipinos in the face” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7Ea43WLAMs. The newscast presents an animated reenactment of a Philippine warship ramming a Chinese vessel in the Scarborough Shoal, the concocted incident which precipitated the maritime standoff with China. But the newscast also shows China deploying its $950 million oil rig to the South China Sea to begin extracting oil for China. The newscast is educating all of China about the stakes involved in China’s acquisition of the entire South China Sea.
One Mandarin-speaking reader noted that the title of the youtube video should have been “80% want China to take military action against the Philippines.” But that translation may have a worse meaning. When Vietnamese sailors planted Vietnam’s flag on Johnson Reef in the Paracel Islands on March 14, 1988, China opened fire and massacred the 82 members of the Vietnamese contingent.
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uy2ZrFphSmc&feature=related). A similar fate may await Philippine sailors if they attempt to re-plant the Philippine flag on the Scarborough Shoal. Would one rather be slapped in the face or massacred?
To counter China’s propaganda, the US Pinoys group has released this youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbkocTLsxtw.
How should the Philippines deal with the conflict with China?
In an article which appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on July 27, 2012 (“Rally to the Flag!”), former Secretary of the Interior and Local Government Rafael Alunan III explained that “a conflict with China will result in unrestricted warfare based on its playbook. That means warfare by any means – militarily (conventional, unconventional, wmd); economically; cyberwarfare; sabotage of strategic infrastructure (information, financial, energy, telecommunications, etc); exploitation of socio-cultural-economic stresses to divide societies…”
“Our preparedness has to be total as well: we need to “harden” our economic defenses by, for example, actively expanding our markets and trade partners; ensure our food and energy security; and industrialize to generate jobs that may be lost abroad. We need to forge unity by settling the civil wars that divide us; that means removing the root causes of our discontents to prevent its exploitation and our division. And we need to build a credible defense shield over the next 10 years, particularly our navy and air force, something we’ve neglected for decades. “
“We also need to prepare ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, our communities physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. There is a whole range of ideas out there on how to prepare for such crises. The action required from us is long-term, and realizing that is the first psychological barrier to hurdle.”
It will take more than faith to deal with the threat from China. Filipinos have to do more than just pray. After all, God helps those who help themselves.