Government News Analysis

Calmer waters under media squall

Sections of the international media continue to talk-up the recent ruling by the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague – that China has no legitimate claim to the South China Sea territory of Scarborough Shoal – to the point that military conflict between the Philippines and China, or with US naval power as Manila’s proxy, is a very real possibility.

Once-over-lightly analysis such as this, while it may make a good headline, further anti-Beijing editorial agendas and play into the euphoria of the moment, is misleading and has no basis in political reality. Right now both sides are making efforts to ease the issue out of the public theatre to prepare way for some very tough government-to-government negotiations. Scarborough shoal – now for the real business

Philippine Foreign Secretary, Perfecto Yasay, while welcoming the court’s decision, has said that he has not urged China to respect the court’s ruling or abide by it. He has simply requested “all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety”.

In other words, Manila is not looking for confrontation; it is certainly not echoing the nationalist rhetoric of the previous administration that reduced Philippines-China relations to its lowest ebb since August 2010 when a sacked police inspector high-jacked a coach carrying 25 Hong Kong tourists in Manila and killed eight of them in an aborted SWAT rescue attempt.

President Rodrigo Duterte has also made it clear throughout his election campaign and since that his government will be looking to improve relations with Beijing, not worsen them. Ties between the two countries have been frayed for almost the entire term of the previous president, Benigno Aquino.

And on the specific issue of Scarborough Shoal, Duterte has said that he is ready to open bilateral talks with the Mainland with a view to finding a mutually acceptable solution. The obvious implication here is that the possibility of a joint exploration agreement, to tap the region’s mineral wealth, will be part of any discussions. He has also asked the Philippines most respected senior statesman, former president Fidel V. Ramos, to be his envoy to China for this mission.

Ramos had a good working relationship with China during his tenure and is thought of highly on the Mainland. This provides a good indication of Duterte’s calm approach to solving the South China Sea impasse.

For its part, China has also intimated something similar – offering to hold “consultations with the states directly concerned … [proposing] joint development in maritime areas”. Beijing too, is seeking close cordial relations with its southern neighbour and has already made offers to bring investment to the Philippines.

In real-world politics, then, at this stage this is not about sovereignty and national pride; it’s about seeking a solution that will benefit both China and the Philippines and restore their relations.

And that is a far cry from, for example, Aljazeera’s take on the state of play between the two nations, that: “The ruling is expected to further increase tensions in the region … and is a point of confrontation with the US”. First the arbitration court’s decision was a foregone conclusion and has long been factored into any future deliberations. In many ways, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on: the UN court has no means by which it can implement and enforce its ruling. Furthermore, any notion that Washington would engage with Beijing in military hostilities on the high seas is – outside of sensationalist journalism – fanciful to put it mildly.

Doha-based Aljazeera is no friend of China, though its real issue with Beijing is a long way from the South China Sea. It’s up in China’s north west in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – the country’s largest administrative division, and home to some 22 million people, predominantly Muslim and, Aljazeera believes, a population that has been marginalised by the Chinese Communist Party.