“Stop doing it and make some friends!”
This is what Bill Hayton, prolific British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) investigative journalist and author of the 2014 book The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, said in his editorial response to the representative of the Chinese Embassy at FSI’s Mangrove Forum on International Relations held at the Bulwagang Apolinario Mabini, Department of Foreign Affairs., on 13 February 2015.
Mr. Hayton was joined by former National Security Adviser and West Philippine Sea Coalition (WPSC) Co-Convenor Rep. Roilo Golez at the speakers’ table. He added, “All you have to do is compromise in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia will fall into your lap.”
The representative of the Chinese Embassy in Manila approached the microphone three times during the open forum and clarified that China is not going to war with anyone. He added that Chinese activities in the South China Sea are within the scope of China’s jurisdiction.
In his presentation, Mr. Hayton broadly discussed the history of tensions in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea vis-à-vis the rise of modern Chinese nationalism. China’s aggression, according to Hayton, stems from its revanchist attitudes to history following the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the intervention and occupation of external powers, considered by the Chinese as the “Century of National Humiliation.” This is said to be the driving force behind the resurgence of Chinese nationalism.
As part of China’s nationalist propaganda, the “Maps of National Humiliation” were published to “enlighten people” on how much territory they have lost. However, Hayton discovered that the names given by the Chinese to the features of the South China Sea were actually mistranslations of the names on British maps, which were flawed to begin with. Hayton stated that China “copied the mistakes” of the British-drawn maps. The islands were renamed only in later decades.
Mr. Hayton viewed China’s “national sense of entitlement to the South China Sea” as both offensive and defensive; it seeks to preserve the period of strategic opportunity in the region, protect the food and energy supplies as well as maritime supply routes, and “recover” Taiwan. In addition, it aspires to dominate the region while getting rid of the United States.
He also questioned the validity of China’s nine-dash line over the South China Sea and called this claim as a “collective hallucination,” as China continues to build infrastructures on disputed islands and reefs. Surrounding countries view these actions as “aggression” and, by doing so, China has created more enemies in its neighborhood.
Representative Golez himself has witnessed China’s continuous building of concrete structures in Mischief Reef when he was the chairman of the Committee on Public Order and Security and Vice-Chairman of the Committee on National Defense at the House of Representatives. The reef is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and hence, construction activities by external powers over the area are in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Instead of shelters for fishermen, the Chinese structures in Mischief Reef were transformed into a military installation.
“Chinese military contingents are already positioned in various reefs, islets, and rocks of the South China Sea Region, particularly in the Spratlys and in the Paracels. Scarborough Shoal is just one more step forward in their bid to secure full control of the world’s second busiest international sea lane,” Rep. Golez said in his 1999 Privilege Speech in Congress.
Representative Golez stated that the dispute in the South China Sea is a geopolitical one, a strategic choke point that links the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. “The power that controls the South China Sea can control the economy of major economic powers,” he added.
China’s very short coastline in contrast to its landmass and population size puts it in a vulnerable geopolitical position. Thus, securing the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the South China Sea is crucial for trade, logistics, and naval forces. This is why China and its neighbors are “fighting over small rocks in the middle of the ocean.”
“In warfare and geopolitics,” Rep. Golez added, “the potential force of a territory is not necessarily proportionate to the size of that territory. It is the location that determines how much potential… In other words, how well one can project power, gain access to a bigger objective or, conversely, prevent access or deny access using that piece of territory, however small.”
China’s deployment of coast guard vessels and reclamation activities in the South China Sea threatens the freedom of navigation in the region and the raises the stakes of various powers such as Japan, Russia, India, and the US.
In the open forum, retired Ambassador Juanito Jarasa raised the point that China declared the South China Sea as its core national interest, and thus, the country will uphold this national interest amid any threat. As such, he said, China will never respect any decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding the maritime dispute. In addition, he said that China will never agree to a legally binding Code of Conduct (CoC) between China and ASEAN.
But even if China will not agree to a CoC, Mr. Hayton maintained that “talking is better than not talking at all.” Rep. Golez added that though China will ignore the decision, it will still affect them in a significant way, considering the present slowdown of Chinese economy.
The representative from the Chinese Embassy was firm in saying that China’s strategic interest is the peace and stability of the region and that the establishment of Maritime Silk Road would also benefit other countries.
However, Chinese activities in the South China Sea and its diplomatic stance do not seem to reflect this commitment to regional stability.
The event was attended by over 200 guests, with representatives from the DFA and other government agencies, military, members of the diplomatic corps, academe, and the press. Philippine Embassies in Tokyo and Yangon also attended through FSI live webcast.