Alternative Scenarios

by Juan L. Mercado

Few Filipinos have visited the Natuna archipelago of Indonesia’s Riau province. It straddles one of the world’s potentially largest gas fields. And over the last two months, Indonesia twice accused Beijing of claiming part of Natuna, reports the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

In so doing, China succeeded in shifting Indonesia, from moderator between China and other South China Sea states, to opponent, notes the SCMP commentary “Peril of Price and Prejudice.” It was written by Philip Bowring, who has covered Asia for four decades.

The Indonesian shift comes when other Southeast Asian countries have had bruising conflicts with China over its “nine-dash line.” Beijing’s map claim “line” sweeps in almost 90 percent of the sea—and barges into exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of other countries.

The Scarborough and Half Moon shoals are within the Philippine EEZ, Bowring notes. But China scoffs at that. One reef is 60 miles from Palawan island, 900 from China. “If it belongs to anyone… it’d be Brunei which previously controlled southern Palawan, the Sulu archipelago and Sabah.”

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Aquino approved last Thursday an agreement that unsnarled their countries’ once-overlapping EEZs in the Celebes and Mindanao Seas. “This is a good example that any border disputes… can be resolved peacefully, and not through military might,” Yudhoyono said.

Indeed, Malaysia and Thailand managed a compromise over a gas rich area. Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia brought island ownership issues to the international court and accepted the result, the SCMP column recalls. “China, however, refuses to compromise or submit to arbitration. Joint development is impossible because China makes it conditional on acceptance of its sovereignty.”

Beijing anchors its claims on “history.” That ignores the existence of other peoples and seafaring and trading going back 2,000 years. Indonesians, for example, colonized Madagascar 1,000 years before Zheng He. Southeast Asians absorbed more of India and the Islamic world than of China, Bowring notes.

There is reluctance by China to treat non-Han neighbors as people with their own history and cultures, Bowring writes. This is of long-standing. “White skin is more than a fashion choice. Belief in eugenics and the need to protect and enhance Han genetic characteristics was strong in the republican era. It has long been rejected in the West and was condemned under Mao.”

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, rights to waters are derived from rights to land, the Jakarta Post reports. Indonesia pressed Beijing for reassurance and sought precise coordinates. None has been given.

Instead, China used force. In March 2013, Indonesian officials boarded a Chinese boat illegally fishing in the Natuna Islands. Chinese armed vessels demanded the release of the fishermen. Outgunned, the Indonesians complied.

Indonesia has now added a battalion, plus jets and naval vessels in the Natuna Islands. Indonesian Military commander, Gen. Moeldoko would funnel more funds for “maritime security.”

There is a “good scenario” and a “less benign one” for this region’s future over the next two decades, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the Nikkei Conference in Tokyo Thursday. One would be a region at peace, with countries working to secure shared interests. The other would be a region splintered  by territorial disputes and protectionism. These two scenarios will play out in the context of how the United States, China and Japan interact.

Lee’s forecast: In 2034, the United States will remain the world’s preeminent superpower. Japan will still be one of the world’s largest economies, with great strengths in science and technology. The biggest change will be the growth of China’s power and influence.

US-China relations are the most important bilateral relationship in the world. But it can easily spiral out of control should a flash point escalate into violence. The Korean peninsula’s “status quo will prevail, with repeated brinksmanship and tensions, but hopefully no war….” (Still), failure to denuclearize poses a continuing risk.

One scenario is Asia remains at peace. The US and China relationship will deepen and  the Japanese economy rebounds. A stable strategic environment will foster regional economic cooperation. Greater economic interdependence will raise standards of living for all.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could “deepen their cooperation and integration.” It would remain “an effective neutral platform for major powers to engage one another.”

The alternative is a “riven fractious Asia.” If China’s growth forces “an imbalance in the region and in the US-China pivot, Asia may be confronted by another, less benign scenario”: one rocked by territorial disputes and nationalist populism.

The dangers are implicit in the “maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas and recent anti-China protests in Vietnam, Asean nations will be forced to choose sides. And  Southeast Asia could morph into “a proxy battleground” for friction between the superpowers.

“Such a strategic climate inevitably sets back economic integration. There are more trade disputes and currency wars and tit-for-tat protectionism. The result is less shared interest in one another’s success, more frictions and disputes, and fewer restraints on countries when things go wrong. Everyone loses in such a scenario.”

Lee says the next 20 years is a “historic opportunity” for Asia.

Today, Filipino and other nationals of Asean countries can visit the Natuna archipelago without getting a visa from Indonesia. China, in contrast, would demand one.


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