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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Will Diplomacy Work In The Spratlys Islands Dispute?

Gamling: "Too few have come. We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor. 
Theoden:  No. We cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless."
- Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King

Diplomacy is always the better option to resolve the Spratlys Islands dispute. Only a crazy and blood-thirsty individual would enjoy war. That doesn't mean the Philippines shouldn't stand and fight for what is right.

The problem with diplomacy is that it only works IF you can back up your position with something really strong. A country who engages in diplomacy should have something that the other party values or fears. Why negotiate with someone who has nothing of value or doesn't have anything credible to back up his or her claims & position? That's the hard truth.

BRP Rajah Humabon (photo from
Sending the world's oldest warship to patrol its own territory may sound laughable but it shows that Manila willing to back up its words with actions even if it looks ineffective in a real life battle.

Yes, it is symbolic. Yes, it is only a token defense but this is not the 19th or early 20th century anymore where other nations just watch and do nothing when a bigger country grabs a smaller state's territory. In a globalized world, people do business with everybody and China is the biggest beneficiary of a liberalized trading regime. Democratic governments that value the rule of law and human rights (ironic, yes) do a lot business with China.

If the superior Chinese navy fire and kill Filipino sailors and soldiers in their own backyard(God forbid!), how do you think the rest of the free people of the world would react to that? Are they still willing to purchase goods from a country that uses profits from their sales to kill citizens of another country in their own soil?

I think this is where Filipinos should work on hard and fast. The Philippine Navy cannot defeat the Chinese navy (not in 50 years or even more as long as thieving generals and politicians are still around) but it can engage them in and even win in a propaganda war.

Why propaganda and world opinion? The reason is simple: every military officer world-wide knows that war is nothing but politics by other means (Klaus Von Claustwitz). Every military action is merely a furtherance of a political agenda. And politics is tied to perception, opinion, preservation of power whether elected or not.

Unpopularity of the  Vietnam War forced the U.S. to negotiate
with the North Vietnamese government (photo from:
The North Vietnamese used propaganda and weakened the United States will to fight, forcing American leaders to go for a negotiated settlement in Paris and thereafter a withdrawal from the Vietnamese War. America didn't win the war because it was an unpopular war.

The same with Israel's occupation of Lebanon in 1980s. The same with the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The Americans, Israelis and Soviets had far superior arms, logistics and manpower. But they all lost the will to fight (or at least weighed in the political costs) forcing their respective leaders to retreat in shame. The brave guerillas & NVA soldiers, Lebanese guerillas & Mujahideens didn't just fight long and hard on the battlefield, their proper use of propaganda turned the tide in their favor.

The Philippines can do it too and it can join its ASEAN allies to make this happen.

The war for world opinion is where Filipinos can win because the claim are standing on firm righteous and legal ground. Filipinos should use the internet: blogs, social networks and other social media to drum up awareness. Pinoys should spread the word to the citizens of countries who are the biggest buyers of Chinese goods and services. Filipinos should ask them if it's right for their home governments to do business with a country who bullies and harasses its neighbors or ask them if it's right for their government and country to let another state use the profits from their exports to build a war machine to grab territories from their weaker nations.

Okay, asking people to stop buying cheap Chinese made goods and change their lifestyle maybe a long shot but hey, if DiCaprio was able to drum up awareness for blood diamonds (diamonds from conflict-ridden & genocidal regimes in Africa) maybe it has a chance. If not then, at least Filipinos can bring their case to the court of international opinion.

It's interesting to see if the Chinese propaganda machinery can match the Filipino's world-wide network of OFWs (overseas filipino workers), expats in terms of influence. If Tibet can marshall world opinion up to the levels of Hollywood, how much more if Filipinos worldwide make full use of their communication power abroad?

Respected Filipino personalities and celebrities can use their influence and media clout to bring to large audiences the real score about China's bullying. Think Manny Pacquiao, Charice Pempengco and other respected Pinoys wearing T-shirts, arm bands with FREE THE KALAYAAN ISLANDS written on them giving speeches or being interviewed on ESPN, CNN and other international media outlets.

In the case of Manny Pacquiao he can even whisper to Senator Harry Reid (whose election he owes to the multi-titled boxer) to bring up China's bullying to the Senate floor. Just in case everyone has forgotten, the Pacman is a member of the Philippine Army, a Sergeant Major in the reserves.

By bringing to the whole world and getting the global community involved (which China definitely hates because it prefers to bilateral talks with claimants...meaning: divide and conquer), the Philippines will put China on the defensive propaganda-wise and even think twice about going all out in grabbing everything in sight on the West Philippine Sea (ex-South China Sea). 

Diplomacy works but only if you bring something to the table. By demonstrating their capacity to turn global opinion against a big bully then only then can negotiations of among equals and find an acceptable solution can begin. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Spratly Islands - What Is China Really Up To?

The past several weeks have been a very interesting for countries with claims on the Spratly Islands and China. First there were the markers, harassment of Vietnamese and Philippine oil exploration ships then the intrusion fighter jets into Philippine air space coinciding with the visit of the Chinese Defense Minister to Manila. And finally, the patrols by the its largest maritime vessel to the Spratly Islands.

Map of Spratly Islands (Photo from

We've all read the news about Chinese incursions into Vietnamese and Philippine-claimed areas in the Spratlys and as of today, all three countries plus Malaysia are sending armed vessels to protect their own pieces of real estate in those islands. These actions are raising tensions in the part of the world even drawing statements from senior US officials who raised concerns on the possibility of armed confrontations if the matter isn't resolved peacefully.

We all know all the rival claimants wants to get their piece of the (supposed) oil and gas action in those islands but it is only China that has been very aggressive and acting quite smug lately about their intentions in the area with PROC's Ambassador Liu Jinchao to the Philippines telling everyone not to explore for oil in the area without their permission. This is not the action and statement one would expect from a cosignatory of the 2002 Code of Conduct governing on how rival claimants should behave to prevent any violence. 

What's the rush?

This begs us the question then, why is China suddenly very interested and raising their naval activity in the Spratlys at this time?  Why the rush? Why rock the boat when most countries who have claims over the area are abiding by the 2002 Code of conduct? 

One big clue to answer these questions was provided recently by the Chinese news agency Xinhua in a news report dated May 23, where it reported the delivery of a 3,000-meter deepwater jumbo oil drilling platform to the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), China's largest offshore oil producer as it's latest step to seek more energy from the ocean.

According to the report and I quote:

CNOCC 981 Offshore Oil Rig (photo from
It took 6 billion yuan (923 million U.S. dollars) of investment and more than three years for China State Shipbuilding Corp. (CSSC), the contractor, to build the CNOOC 981 rig for the offshore oil giant.
"It will also help achieve the goal set by our national strategic plan," said Zhang, former head of China's National Energy Administration.

China relies on imports for more than half of its oil consumption, so it's eager to diversify its energy sources on land and through deepwater drilling to fuel its robust economic growth.
According to CNOOC, the rig will be installed in waters of the South China Sea and begin oil and gas prospecting in July.
The South China Sea is one of the most important natural gas and oil production bases for CNOOC, which produced more than 50 million tonnes of oil equivalent in China's marine areas last year.
CNOOC plans to invest 200 billion yuan and drill 800 deepwater wells and raise its deepwater oil and gas output to 500 million oil equivalent by 2020.
China imported 84.96 million tonnes of crude oil in the first four months this year, up 11.5 percent from a year earlier, while imports of refined oil products rose 18.6 percent year-on-year to 14.25 million tonnes in the period, according to government statistics."
So there it is. It seems the PROC is hell bent on extracting oil from the South China Sea (with 800 more wells to build!) to strengthen its energy security given its economy's insatiable appetite for oil and other energy sources. So far, the only place in the South China Sea (or the West Philippines Sea according to Manila) with real potential for energy reserves is guessed it, the Spratly Islands. 
Not that we blame them. Of course, any county with needs like China should do what it can to keep its economic machines running and well-lubricated.
Political and military needs
It is not all economics too. There are political hence, military considerations as well. Even if we assume that China can get all the cheap oil (quite unlikely) it needs from its usual sources, namely the Middle East, such an arrangement is inconvenient, to say the least, for an preeminent economic powerhouse. 
China knows that it cannot forever stay dependent on Arab oil as the it will put them on a position to be always dependent on the U.S. Navy to keep the sea lanes in the Persian Gulf, where most of its oil supplies flow from, to its own shores open and safe. To rely on a potential rival to keep the flow of your economic liefblood is doesn't make strategic sense, quite too humiliating and simply not in the interest of a rising superpower.
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise patrolling the Persian Gulf

You can imagine if some kind of armed conflict suddenly flares up between the U.S. and China, all the U.S. Navy has to do is to clamp up the flow of energy supplies from the Persian Gulf  (where China doesn't have a naval presence) and you grind to halt the second largest economy in the world. That situation is unacceptable to the party bosses of the PROC.
No shooting war unless...
Energy security is the reason for urgency on the part of China to go full steam and exploit resources in an area that they can easily defend & exert large influence and that area is the South China Sea, most notably the Spratly Islands.
Sounds reasonable to you, doesn't it? 
However, there's just one small problem. In order to secure and exploit the needed oil and gas reserves in the Spratly and nearby Paracele Islands, China has to take control of the entire region and that means dealing early on with other claimant countries to these territories.
At the end of the day, I think what China is really after --- is oil and other energy resources to ensure the expansion of its economy. The use of naval warships and intrusion by fighter jets are part of the game to secure great leverage for China when she sits down with the other claimants and get into a join-venture that gives her the lion's share of the profits and decision-making.

By flexing its military might (yes, bullying) early on, Beijing is sending a signal to the rest of the claimants that peaceful means (meaning: our terms of the deal) is way better than taking them on in the field of armed conflict. It is essentially saying, better do business with us or we do it the rough way.
Now if the claimants don't want to do business according to China's terms then things can get quite nasty unless the UN steps in.
What do you think? Please leave a comment.