Philippine-PRC Spratly Islands Spat + PR Spin

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 3/06/2011 03:12:00 PM
In politics, joining up seemingly unrelated issues is a frequent occurrence. Sometimes it goes by the name horse-trading, other times logrolling. Whatever it's called, there's no escaping it. A few months ago I penned a feature for LSE IDEAS that neatly encapsulates my ideas about China's territorial conflicts with its Southeast Asian neighbours over islands in the South China Sea. So many months after that Hillary Clinton-fuelled diplomatic row, we have another one on our hands. Last week, a Philippine-flagged vessel it calls a seismic surveillance ship was confronted by Chinese vessels in these troubled waters. The PRC calls the surrounding islands Nansha, while the Philippines calls them the Kalayaan ("freedom") islands. In geographic terms, the Red Bank where the incident took place shows you the vastness of China's claim given how much nearer it is to the Philippines (see map point). Feeling aggrieved, the Philippine armed forces scrambled a few planes and boats to look into what was going on, but the Chinese boats had already left the scene when they got there:
Two Chinese Navy gunboats reportedly harassed a vessel owned by the Department of Energy (DOE) that was conducting maritime research off the disputed Spratly Islands last Wednesday. Armed Forces Western Command (Westcom) commander Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban confirmed that the Air Force deployed bombers and an Islander reconnaissance aircraft while the Navy dispatched three vessels to intercept the two Chinese vessels. “But they did not catch the Chinese vessels that already left when the planes arrived. The DOE ship just resumed their research in the area,” Sabban said in a telephone interview.

Sabban said the incident occurred at around 9:30 a.m. in the vicinity of Reed Bank, 250 kilometers west of Palawan. He said Reed Bank is well within Philippine territory and Navy gunboats were deployed to secure the DOE [Department of Energy] research vessel M/V Venture...

Initial exploration of the Reed Bank by the DOE revealed that the area contains about 3.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 440 million barrels of oil. Sabban said two white Chinese gunboats with the markings No. 71 and No. 75 tried to drive away the DOE research vessel from Reed Bank. The Navy and the Air Force reported that the two Chinese vessels conducted a side-by-side maneuver, virtually “sandwiching” the DOE research vessel, prompting its alarmed personnel to radio for help.
The incident also prompted the Philippine government to file a protest with the PRC:
Manila has filed a formal protest with Beijing after two Chinese patrol boats allegedly harassed a government-authorized seismic survey ship near the disputed Spratly Islands "We have already brought the matter up [with China]. We handed them a protest [letter] on the incident," President Benigno S. C. Aquino III told reporters in an interview after attending a multisectoral dialogue here.

Mr. Aquino also said the country will send to Beijing an expert on the issue to discuss the matter. Pending resolution of the issue, he said a Philippine Coast Guard vessel has been deployed to the area to assist the survey ship. "The Coast Guard ship will ensure that our rights are protected by making sure that this survey ship [authorized] by our government would finish its job," said the President.
The Chinese embassy got a ring from the president's office shortly thereafter:
Meanwhile, "peaceful negotiations" are the way to "solve the dispute, if there is indeed a dispute" over the incident last March 2, said Ethan Y. Sun, deputy chief of political section and spokesperson of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Manila. Mr. Sun said China has always been "committed to maintaining the peace and stability in the South China Sea...If there is dispute between China and the Philippines, this should be made up by peaceful bilateral negotiations," said Mr. Sun in an interview on Friday.

"Aggressive" is not a word he would use to describe any of the recent the actions from the Chinese and the Philippines side, as "it does nothing beneficial to peace and stability in the region." Nevertheless, he maintained that "ever since ancient times, China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters." Nansha is the Chinese name for the Spratlys.

China, Mr. Sun added, has been consistent in upholding the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea [signed in 2002]. He reiterated a statement made by the Department of Foreign Affairs that the lines of communication between the Philippines and China remain open.

A consideration is that Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Liu Jianchao will likely return to Manila next week from an annual home office reporting to discuss the matter with the government. "Sometimes it is necessary and more than appropriate to have a high-level exchange," Mr. Sun said.
And now for the joining up of issues. It is well-known that 8 million Filipinos are economic migrants working abroad. As it so happens, some of them just happened to work in Libya. The Philippine press has been critical of what it perceives to be slow government evacuation of its nationals from Libya. While visiting the China Daily, still our favourite official publication, I came across an article which boasts of how China is facilitating the evacuation of other countries' expatriates. As you would expect, including those of the Philippines:
China, in conducting its largest overseas evacuation, helped more than 1,100 foreigners leave Libya over the past two weeks, transporting them on chartered Greek vessels, said China's Ambassador to Greece Luo Linquan. Calling it an act of humanitarianism, Luo said the foreigners were mainly from Greece, Italy, Poland, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Vietnam. A total of 35,860 Chinese citizens had been evacuated from Libya as of Wednesday night, according to the Foreign Ministry. Of these, 20,745 had already returned to China, Vice-Foreign Minister Song Tao said...

Once the maritime evacuation commenced on Feb 22, three Greek ships undertook six voyages from the Cretian capital, Heraklion, to Benghazi and Misurata, two port cities in eastern and western Libya. By Wednesday, more than 13,000 Chinese citizens had been transported to Crete. So far, eight chartered flights have been arranged to take Chinese citizens home...

On the morning of Feb 22, the Chinese government leased two Greek ships to sail to Libya and the vessels departed at 6:50 pm that same day. "The efficiency was unimaginable," as in normal circumstances the process should take days, said Luo.
These seemingly unrelated but ultimately linked occurrences demonstrate a couple of things. First, China would waste the Philippines if hostilities broke out given the former's vastly superior resources. Second, China is still canny in using other diplomatic avenues to win over Philippine friends such as by helping the evacuation of RP nationals from Libya. Third, the Spratly islands issue is not yet out of the limelight, though you'd wish they'd come up with a lasting diplomatic solution sooner or later.

BTW: There is video footage available of the Philippines' modest installation in the disputed islands.

UPDATE: The Philippines is thinking of sending an envoy to China to discuss things. The Reed Bank itself is not being contested according to reports, but the waters in which the incident took place are, hence the entanglement.