MANILA – If there is one direct benefit the Philippines gained from President Obama’s recent “containment tour” of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, it would be the commitment of Malaysia “to support international arbitration” of the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
The Philippines had earlier sought arbitration of the dispute at the arbitral court of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in The Hague.
The Philippines decided to take the case to the United Nations early this year, instead of opting for bilateral talks that China has been asking to settle their maritime dispute in the Philippine Western Sea (South China Sea).
Although the Chinese Navy attacked the Vietnamese in 1988 when Vietnam tried to assert jurisdiction over one of the Paracel Islands abutting Vietnam (leaving 64 Vietnamese killed and 61 others missing), Vietnam has yet to join the Philippines in its bid for international arbitration of its feud with China.
At a press briefing capping Mr. 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 (Malaysians) actually came out in support of the principle of international arbitration, which has been a subject of some diplomatic wranglings in recent months as the Philippines has sought to pursue an arbitration case regarding its dispute with China.”
China, which has mastered the divide-and-rule tactic to intimidate claimant countries, would find itself isolated if Malaysia and the other claimant countries, including Vietnam, eventually follow the lead taken by the Philippines in seeking international arbitration.
Aside from the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have also staked territorial claims in the vast South China Sea (Philippine Western Sea) which China arbitrarily claims as part of its maritime territory.
During a recent a press briefing, Evan Medeiros, senior director of NSC (National Security Council) for Asian affairs, said, “On your first question about the South China Sea, I would just underscore a point that our position on this is very, very clear — that we oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or aggression by any state to advance their maritime territorial claims. 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.”
Even without the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the U.S. could revitalize the Philippine military by invoking the 1951US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which states that “an attack” on the Pacific Ocean side of the Philippines is an attack on the United States.
On the approval of EDCA, Mr. Rhodes said 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,” the EDCA’s “rotational” presence as in Darwin, Australia,” will be “fundamentally Filipino facilities.”
Rhodes also said, “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 to increasingly 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.”
I hope that such issues as cleaning up toxic waste and criminal jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers and insurance coverage of Filipino soldiers injured, disabled or killed as a result of “friendly fire” during the course of joint war exercises should likewise be covered by EDCA.
During the press conference presided jointly by 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.
They should have asked President Obama if he would support the grant of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to the Filipinos in the U.S. in the wake of the typhoon Yolanda destruction or if he would direct the removal the Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front from the U.S. State Department list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” for as long as they renounce armed struggle and join the political exercise.