Juan L. Mercado

Tomorrow arrived yesterday

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“Cartographic” - what? “Cartographic aggression” is shorthand for redrawing maps to gobble up territory, writes Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé. And last week’s region-wide protests over Beijing’s clamping of new fishing access rules on disputed portions of the South China Sea is the latest edition.

 

The directive to secure permission from Hainan province swept chunks off the Philippines’ 327-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and those of other countries.

Can the legislature of a Philippine province, say Batanes or Zambales, along the West Philippine Sea—pass an ordinance requiring that all foreign fishing boats wishing to enter its portion of Philippine waters first acquire a permit from the “relevant and responsible department” of the Philippine government? Inquirer asked in an editorial titled “Provocative,” adding that this is part of  “China’s increasingly naked attempts at unilateral control” over contested areas.

“All states can fish in the high seas,” Malacañang said Sunday. “When it comes to the EEZ, that is under our jurisdiction.” Vietnam and Taiwan slammed the Beijing directive as “illegal and groundless.” “Dangerous,” the United States snapped.

Nonsense, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman retorted. The 2014 rules were “technical revisions” of existing laws.

The conflict opens a “window of opportunity,” said the Angara Center for Law and Economics. We should explore crafting joint fishery agreements with China. A tenth of fish catch worldwide comes from this region.

Coastal countries, with overlapping claims, will benefit through joint regulation of fishing management. All would be losers in an armed conflict,  former senator Edgardo Angara said.

Coastal passages from Singapore, through Malaysia, to Japan, Russia and North America ferry over $1.2 trillion in goods annually. The region’s seabeds contain 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, US estimates say. That’s about 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s reserves. Nothing firm about the reported oil fields in Aloguinsan, Cebu, the Department of Energy says.

A steep rise in shale oil reserves will make the United States a net exporter, instead of the world’s leading importer. The United States may overtake Russia, as the world’s biggest gas producer by 2015. It would become “all but self-sufficient” in energy needs by 2035. Reliance on oil from Middle East exporters is ending, the International Energy Agency reports. This will change the global balance of power.

China is the world’s biggest energy consumer. It imports 60 percent of its crude. Bulk of the 10.5 million to 11 million barrels of oil that China burns daily comes from the Middle East. Tankers sail through the Strait of Malacca “choke point” between Malaysia and Indonesia, en route to China.

China has the world’s largest wind power base. It invests in and imports via pipelines from Central Asia, Russia and the new pipeline route from the Indian Ocean through Burma (Myanmar).

China National Offshore Oil Corp. has invited foreign oil companies to offer bids to explore potential blocks off the coast of Vietnam. And Beijing has increasingly used nonmilitary boats to make its points. Last month, it declared it would expand the fleet of fishing vessels it will be sending to disputed regions.

Overlapping territorial claims to sovereignty and maritime boundaries are normally resolved through (a) a combination of customary international law, (b) adjudication before the International Court of Justice or International Tribunal for Law of the Sea, (c) arbitration under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). The Philippines has chosen the arbitration option.

China has ratified Unclos, writes Mohan Malik, a professor in Asian security at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Honolulu. The treaty, by and large, rejects “historically based” claims - precisely the type which Beijing periodically asserts.

The Unclos agreement rejects justification by historical right. “China has, historically speaking, about as much right to claim the South China Sea as Mexico has the right to claim the Gulf of Mexico for its exclusive use, or Iran the Persian Gulf, or India the Indian Ocean.”

Significantly, “in its territorial disputes with India, Burma, and Vietnam, Beijing  took the position that its land boundaries were never defined, demarcated and delimited. But now, when it comes to islands, shoals and reefs in the South China Sea, Beijing claims otherwise.”

“Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Mao Zedong wrote. China’s claim is backed by its growing armed forces and navy.

Freedom of navigation and control over South China Sea shipping lanes will be among the major global political issues of the 21st century, the New York Times points out in “A game of shark and minnow.” Thus, the US “pivot” to this region includes altering the roughly 50-50 balance of naval forces between the Pacific and the Atlantic. That would become 60-40  by 2020.

“Europe is a landscape; East Asia, a seascape,” Robert Kaplan wrote in Foreign Policy. “Therein lies a crucial difference between the 20th and 21st centuries…. The spaces between major population centers are overwhelmingly maritime. The physical contours of East Asia augur a naval century.”

China’s land borders are more secure than at any time since the 18th-century Qing dynasty. China is psychologically bent to erase two centuries of foreign transgressions on its territory—forcing every country around it to react, Kaplan noted.

East Asia, or more precisely the Western Pacific, which is quickly becoming the world’s new center of naval activity, presages a fundamentally different dynamic. Kaplan adds: “South China Sea is the future of conflict.”

For Southeast Asian countries, tomorrow arrived yesterday.

 

 

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