One of the most emotive issues of the four-year-long stand-off over Scarborough Shoal – a collection of South China Sea rock outcrops – has taken a step closer to being resolved. Filipino fishermen are back hauling fish from the once more-troubled waters as Chinese marine patrols stand down. It’s a major breakthrough and is the direct result of President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent trip to China. He asked that Filipino fishing vessels be left alone and the evidence coming in is that they are being.
In 2012, relations between the Philippines and China soured when a Chinese naval patrol prevented Filipino fishermen from approaching the disputed fishing grounds. That led to former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, ratcheting-up the tension by taking the issue to an international arbitration court which earlier this year ruled that the shoal is part of Philippine marine territory and not part of China’s. That, however, didn’t remove the impasse: China never recognised the court and the court, actually a tribunal, has no means of implementing its ruling in any case.
That’s the background. So what does it show? Simply this; that for the past four years, Filipino fishermen in that region have seen their livelihoods decimated while Aquino and his Western backers – specifically the US – played Russian roulette with them as the “special-partnership” allies sought to put China in its place. It’s been the fishermen who have paid the highest price; no fish for them has meant no money and an inability for them to provide for their families. In truth, they were little more than pawns in a reckless game of political chess.
But that, it seems, was an acceptable price in the context of the far bigger high-stakes game of geo-politics. Although first presented as a simple issue concerning fishermen and fishing, at its heart it was nothing of the sort. This was always about ensuring that the US had a sustainable sphere of influence in East Asia and commanded the global shipping routes that slide close to Scarborough Shoal. Chinese military outposts on those rocks, then, threatened that influence and so Washington needed Manila’s help to get them removed.
But all that would never work on a protestor’s T shirt; it wouldn’t get people out on the streets burning Chinese flags. It wouldn’t give the cause the angry public face it needed. This needed a human story – one that would fire emotions; grab news coverage around the world. What better, then, than a fisherman’s story?
And so Aquino’s saber-rattling and megaphone diplomacy got louder, and in direct proportion any solution to the issue got more intractable. Military options were sort of hinted at and the crowds on the street swelled further, warming to that prospect. But of course that again was just part of the political theatre. There was never a military option to remove the Chinese from the area – certainly not by the Philippine Navy and, despite its rhetoric and its “guarantees”, the Americans were never going to engage the People’s Liberation Army either. All that was nothing more than Hollywood bluff. And of course the Chinese knew it.
But so did Duterte; and that’s why – even well before he was elected – he was trying to deflate the situation by playing down the arbitration court’s ruling and suggesting that the ultimate solution would have to come from bilateral talks between Manila and Beijing. Naturally, Duterte’s critics seized on this, accusing him of selling the Philippines out as they flourished the practically worthless arbitration court’s decision. They called him a traitor for going against the people’s will, when in fact it was his people’s welfare, and the future of his people, he was trying to protect.
Time will tell how astute Duterte has been over this matter, but from all the present angles The Volatilian™believes that he has so far successfully navigated the tricky waters that battered Philippine-bound trade and investment from China for two-thirds of the last administration. His recent state visit to Beijing built the bridge.
The US, meanwhile, doesn’t have the luxury of time. Washington – at least under President Obama, and Hillary Clinton should she succeed him – is desperate to get the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) up and running. This initiative, the biggest trade bloc ever, is the flagship of Obama’s legacy and the central plank to Clinton’s future international trade policy. And integral to its success is Obama’s much-vaunted “Pivot to East Asia” strategy – effectively switching US might to this region from a failed Middle East.
Through the TPP the US seeks to become a major trade beneficiary by creating a massive market for its products throughout the entire reach of the Pacific. Trade is the main battleground for global supremacy – essentially, then, it’s a fight between the US and China. And that, right there, in a nutshell, is the real reason why those Filipino fishermen were such important pawns.
The TPP, under one name or another has been on the drawing board since 2004. By 2008 it had been fully fleshed out. The Philippines and China have wrangled over these rocks for decades, but up until 2012 they held little significance for the US. By 2012, efforts to pave the way of the TPP were progressing and so the Scarborough Shoal incident provided a golden opportunity – not just to smooth TPP access, but to show the world that the Pivot to East Asia was underway. Without question, that pivot has now been set back.
So where does Washington go from here? Well, it will endeavour to exploit any cracks it can find between China and any of the countries in this region. Who knows which? Vietnam, of course, is possible given the right circumstances. But the Philippines must still remain its best hope – even despite the chilly war between the two capitals right now. America has plenty of friends on the ground in the Philippines and we can expect them to keep this issue alive as long as they can. What will make that more difficult though, is when the tangible benefits from China start really kicking in.