MANILA (JGL) – If there was one direct accomplishment that the Philippines gained without trying in President Obama’s “containment tour” among its allied countries of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines over the last seven days, it was the commitment of Malaysia to “support the international arbitration, which has been a subject of some diplomatic wrangling in recent months as the Philippines has sought to pursue an arbitration case regarding its disputes with China” at the Arbitral of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in The Hague, Netherlands.
Ever since the Philippines decided to take her case before the United Nations early this year, instead of the bilateral talks between the Philippines and China that China wants to settle their maritime dispute in the Philippine Western Sea (South China Sea), the Philippines appears to be the lonely voice among other claimant countries to cast her lot in international arbitration.
Although the Chinese Navy brutally attacked Vietnamese in 1988 when Vietnam tried to asset jurisdiction over one of the Paracel Islands abutting Vietnam, leaving 64 Vietnamese killed and 61 others missing and believed dead and some Vietnamese vessels destroyed, Vietnam has yet to join the Philippines in formally taking China to international arbitration on their overlapping claims.
At a press briefing at the end of President Obama’s Malaysian tour, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes said, in “Malaysia today there’s a very substantial and very robust joint statement by the U.S. government and the government of Malaysia about our position on the South China Sea.
“As you know, Malaysia is a claimant. And very significantly in the joint statement, for the first time, they actually came out in support of the principle of international arbitration, which has been a subject of some diplomatic wrangling in recent months as the Philippines has sought to pursue an arbitration case regarding its disputes with China.”
China, which has mastered the “divide-and-rule tactic to intimidate claimant countries by sticking to “bilateral talks” to get the edge to settle the maritime dispute, will find itself isolated if Malaysia and other claimant countries, including Vietnam, would eventually follow the lead taken by the Philippines to take the dispute to international arbitration.
On another front that softened the Philippines’s acceptance of the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the United States was able to tell Philippine negotiators that the agreement was more of a humanitarian cooperation rather than military alliance in the wake of the super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) and the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian airlines that brought together many countries, including the U.S. and China, to help the Yolanda and Malaysian airlines victims.
OTHER CLAIMANTS TO PHILIPPINE WESTERN SEA
Aside from the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have also staked their territorial claims on the vast South China Sea (Philippine Western Sea) that China arbitrarily claims to own.
In a press briefing, Evan Medeiros, Senior Director of NSC for Asian Affairs, said, “On your first question about the South China Sea, I would just underscore a point that Ben made that our position on this is very, very clear that we oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or aggression by any state — any state — to advance their maritime territorial claims. And to the extent that our work with our alliance partners and our security partners helps them become more capable and not being vulnerable to intimidation, coercion or aggression, we think that’s a good thing. And that’s one of the reasons why we seek to modernize our alliances and our security partnerships when we come here in the region.”
Aside from the impact of the U.S. help in the rehabilitation of the Yolanda victims, by donating tens of millions of dollars in services and supplies to the effort with the effort of the U.S. military, the U.S. has a fallback position to provide muscle to the Philippine military by invoking the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which says “an attack” on the Pacific Ocean side of the Philippines is an attack on the United States although it remains to be seen if Philippine Western Sea/South China Sea is part of the vast Pacific Ocean as defined by MDT.
But the other aspects going for the approval of EDCA is the statement of Rhodes that aside from becoming a “framework” to deliver “disaster response,” EDCA can also work “to counter piracy; we’ve worked on the ability to have joint exercises across the region. We’ve worked on countering proliferation and transnational crime.
“So again, I think it’s a flexible agreement that will allow us to position assets as necessary to provide that training and to do that type of joint effort with the Philippines.”
Rhodes clarified that unlike the previous U.S. “traditional bases in different parts of the world” that the Philippines had for nearly half a century, the EDCA’s “rotational” presence as in Darwin, Australia,” will be “fundamentally Filipino facilities. So, clearly they will be present and will have access to their bases.
NIMBLE WITH OUR PARTNERS
“But given the nature of the threats and challenges that we face, it is necessary for us to be able to respond in a manner that is nimble with our partners. It’s also necessary for us increasingly to train capable and effective allies and partners. And so, these types of agreements give us that flexibility without necessarily having a base that would get at sovereignty issues for the Philippines and also, is clearly a more resource-intensive endeavor over the long term for us.”
This columnist is hoping that such issues as cleaning up toxic waste and criminal jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers and insurance coverage of those Filipino soldiers injured, disabled or killed as a result of “friendly fire” during the course of joint war exercises should likewise be covered by the EDCA.
During the joint press conference of Presidents Obama and Aquino in Malacanang, it was unfortunate the two “lucky” Filipino reporters, whose names were drawn to ask questions, did not prepare alternative questions.
When questions were raised about China’s aggressive behavior were pretty much well-covered, they should have asked President Obama if he would support the grant of Temporary Protective Status of the Filipinos in the U.S., following the destruction of Typhoon Yolanda; or if he would remove the Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front from the list of the U.S. State Department as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” for as long as they renounce armed struggle and join political exercise; and if he would exercise prosecutorial discretion by not opposing the pending class suit, Entines v. USA, et al, #13-cv-348 filed in the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., supporting the view that Filipino World War II veterans are automatic U.S. Citizens based on the “1862 Act, Sec. 21” and apologize for the passage of U.S. Congress of the Rescission Acts of 1946.
For President Aquino, I would tell him that there were 32 journalists, not 52, killed at the Maguindanao Massacre; when are you going to arrest human rights violators like former General/Congressman Jovito Palparan; and are you willing to re-start the “principled negotiations to thresh out the issues, unearth and address the root causes of the conflict” with the CPP and New Peoples Army by reviving the Norway peace talks that broke down in 2013 as called for by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines?