- Thu, 05/31/2012 - 00:00
GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc
Updated June 01, 2012 12:00 AM Comments
China spent the best part of the last two decades sweet-talking the world about its intentions. Its rise supposedly is peaceful for investment and trade, and a concomitant military buildup is only for defense. Recent events in the South China Sea have bared China’s aim to be the opposite. It is expanding militarily into neighbors’ territories, and using economics as weapon.
The most upset by far are Vietnam and the Philippines. In the heat of summer 2012 Chinese fishing boats entered in big numbers the waters off the two Southeast Asian countries’ coasts. These weren’t the usual poachers from China’s southernmost island-province of Hainan. Chinese government vessels were escorting the fishers. Painted white, the ships ostensibly were from civilian agencies in charge of maritime or fisheries protection, and seismic research. But they were heavily armed.
Hanoi protested the encroachments, while letting its own fishers to join in. Manila authorities were sterner to enforce environment laws. Sailors from a passing Philippine Navy ship boarded one of seven Hainan launches inside Scarborough Shoal, to videotape the illegal haul of corals, live sharks, and giant clams. Whereupon, three Chinese white vessels arrived to shield the six other boats from inspection. Letting the Coast Guard take over, the Philippine naval ship went on to its original destination on the Pacific coast. It had taken enough proof of infraction of world treaties against the harvest and trade of endangered species. Worse, the Chinese fishers and escort ships were intruding in Philippine waters. Scarborough is only 120 miles off Luzon, thus part of a Philippine 200-mile exclusive economic zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but 850 miles too far from Hainan.
China’s ensuing words and acts were trademark of a bully. Allegedly Scarborough (which its calls Huangyan Island) has been its possession since ancient times, and so annexed under its 2009 nine-dash line claim over the entire South China Sea. While feigning a fishing ban for nature’s sake, Beijing sent to the shoal a hundred fishing craft backed on rotation by a dozen government ships. Manila took the moral high ground, urging Beijing to let the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in Hamburg legally settle the tiff. Manila is confident. Scarborough is recorded in Spanish, British and Japanese historical shipping logs as a rest stop of Filipino seafarers. It is a shoal, or collection of reefs and rocks submerged during high tide, under UNCLOS definition, not a habitable “island” as misnamed by China, because lacking its own fresh water source. Restrained by its Constitution from war, the Philippines is militarily weak. It keeps watch over Scarborough from afar with Coast Guard air patrols, and has cautioned Filipino fishermen from provoking China.
Knowing its ancient claim to be baseless, China backed its Scarborough buildup with saber rattling. The controlled Chinese press misreported the Philippines as militarizing the shoal. Beijing harangued the United States for holding simultaneous though separate war games with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. And a Chinese general taunted when asked about the prospect of war with a long-time friend: “If the Philippines gives us such an opportunity, we will certainly seize it.”
In turn to back up its military muscle flexing, China is putting the economic squeeze on the Philippines. Since the standoff at Scarborough began last April 8, China has barred the entry into Beijing and Shanghai of more than 2,000 containers of Philippine bananas. Supposedly a pest had been discovered — but since disproved as existing only in coconuts, and mostly from China’s own Hainan Island. China also has tightened the import of Philippine pineapples and papayas, for false and flimsy reasons. It has rejected joint inspections right at Philippine seaports.
There’s more. Payments for imports of Philippine minerals are being deliberately delayed. Shanghai declassified a Philippine-owned hotel purportedly for less than 5-star facilities, although it had been so certified since 2007. Flights between the two countries have been curtailed. China has been reducing travel visa approvals, discouraging Chinese from touring and investing in the Philippines, and planning a crackdown on supposed illegal Filipino workers. Random passport checks have become frequent in known Filipino enclaves. Demonstrations (though poorly attended) have been organized almost daily against the Philippine embassy in Beijing and consulates in Shanghai, Chongqing, and Hong Kong.
Curbing of trade and cultural exchanges have hurt not only Filipinos but also, naturally, Chinese. Businessmen on China’s side do not necessarily relish mistreating Philippine counterparts and customers. Although jingoism has been rising in support of Beijing’s policies, many independent news blogs and social media have been critical. Even Beijing’s communist rulers fear a jingoist backlash, and so have been cracking down on ultra-nationalists in the run-up to a national congress and change of central leadership.
Chinese pride themselves in 4000 years of diplomacy, sometimes defined as the art of thinking twice before saying nothing. The tradition has fostered regional flourish and influence. Four in five Filipinos can trace their roots to a Chinese ancestor. Beijing’s bullying of neighbors thus does not sit well with intellectuals. Particularly embarrassing for Chinese dissidents was the remark of foreign minister Yang Jiechi in response to complaints about China’s behavior in the region. “China is a big country,” he had smirked so undiplomatically, “and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.” Thrice, Chinese officials have berated Filipino and western reporters about their supposed unbalanced journalism. In baring its vicious side, China is isolating itself.