By Raïssa Robles
Today, as a planeload of congressmen and journalists fly to the Philippine-owned Pag-Asa Island, tension is at an all time high in the South China Sea.
I just hope no other plane tries to buzz this party whose only equipment on board are cameras and digital recorders.
South China Sea is among the most heavily militarized areas in Asia. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines all have military installations there. In 1998, the South China Morning Post correspondent Greg Torode said there were over 5,000 military personnel stationed there by their various countries.
There no fresh updates on these figures. But we can safely assume there are more soldiers there now with deadlier equipment. By next week, we will be adding to the deadly build-up by stationing over there a 378-foot Hamilton-class cutter, BRP Gregorio del Pilar.
Because of this, I would like to share with you all a recent piece that former Philippine President Fidel Ramos wrote on the South China Sea dispute in the hope that it will help in the ongoing debates and lower tension in the area.
Ramos’ piece also appeared in the South China Morning Post yesterday.
Turn disputes over Spratlys from powder keg into basis for Pax Asia-Pacifica
The South China Sea must be demilitarized to avoid conflict
July 19, 2011
By Fidel V. Ramos
One of the main sources of tension in Asia today is the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where the Philippines, Vietnam, China and others have conflicting claims.
In Chinese media reports, the heightened “unfriendliness” in the region has allegedly arisen from “bad rumours and speculation” on the part of Filipino commentators. But the reality is starker: intrusions by Chinese aircraft into Filipino airspace in May; Chinese patrol boats cruising in March in the Recto (Reed) Bank, west of the Filipino island of Palawan; and, most serious of all, a Chinese missile frigate firing at Filipino fishing boats in February near Palawan’s Quirino atoll.
Armed conflict, of course, will be in no one’s interest. But the risk posed by these disputes is growing, because China’s relations with both the Philippines and Vietnam are at their lowest point in decades.
Last June, I gave the keynote speech at the celebrations marking the 36th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Philippine diplomatic relations in the presence of 5,000 of my countrymen and a smattering of Chinese officials. Yet on that same day, the headlines in Chinese papers were blasting the Philippines for its historic claim to ownership of the Spratly Islands.
Of course, the governments of both countries recognise the need to maintain the stability and co-operation that have made East Asia the world’s fastest growing region. The same is true of Vietnam’s government and that of the United States. But there is no institutionalised means to discuss and resolve the dispute.
Now is the time for China, the Philippines, Vietnam, other claimants and the US to take action to begin to lower these tensions. What is needed, above all, is a covenant among the leaders of Asia-Pacific that will make peaceful dispute resolution binding on all stakeholders, big or small. Only such a pledge can provide the certainty investors will need if the Spratly resources are to be developed.
Certainly, China’s leaders talk as if this is their goal. In April, at this year’s Boao Forum in Hainan , President Hu Jintao asserted: “Peace and development remain the overriding themes of the times … China will always be a good neighbour, good friend and good partner of other Asian countries.”
It is past time to make those sentiments a reality. Asia’s governments must also begin to adhere to a far more expansive idea of open regionalism, which means that countries like India should have a voice in Asia-Pacific affairs, and they must respect the Asian interests of countries beyond the region. The US, for example, should be made welcome to participate – or continue to participate – in peacekeeping and security co-operation.
But how is Asia to reach consensus on this point? Ever since 1994, I have proposed to leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that the Spratlys be demilitarised as a first step towards building trust. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and associated international commitments must become the basis for productive dialogue leading to binding covenants. Joint exploration and development of the resources in the archipelago could then begin.
More broadly, the urgent task for Asian statesmen over the next five to 10 years will be to replace the region’s Pax Americana that has guaranteed regional stability for decades with a more comprehensive Pax Asia-Pacifica that is built on inclusiveness and burden-sharing. But such an Asia-Pacific peace will be durable only if it is based on a balance of mutual benefits rather than on the balance of power.
Clearly, this concept implies burden-sharing by all Asia-Pacific countries to ensure the region’s harmony and security. Pax Asia-Pacifica’s institutions will need to be built, as Europe’s peace was built after the second world war, on strong, co-operative undertakings among the most powerful countries and regional blocs – the US, China, Japan, India, South Korea, Russia, and the 10 member states of Asean.
The region’s economic growth and progress require that we Asians contain our rivalries and avoid the arms races that, unfortunately, now seem to be under way.