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Aquino Asks Each Day Why China Seeks to Rule South China Sea

By Clarissa Batino and Joel Guinto
May 23, 2014 5:26 AM EDT 250 Comments
Benigno Aquino, president of the Philippines.
Photographer: Jes Aznar/Bloomberg
Benigno Aquino, president of the Philippines.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino wakes up each morning with a question for which he has no answer: “There are very few days that I don’t start the day asking what does China gain from all this?”

What drives China to press its claims to the South China Sea, taking on countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, is the question, Aquino, 54, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Haslinda Amin in Manila yesterday. China’s actions puzzle Aquino given its stated desire to deepen economic ties with Southeast Asia and be seen as a regional partner.

“These disputes with your neighbors, how does that help you in your quest to continue to improve your own economy?” he asked. “There are necessary repercussions from all of these tensions to trade, tourism and so many other facets.”

Aquino’s comments also underscore the difficulties faced by the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations in pushing back against China over territory. As well as dwarfing them militarily, China is the largest trading partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Philippine Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo said in an interview with Bloomberg Television that two-way trade with China may expand 10 percent to 20 percent a year.

International Arbitration

As regional tensions mount, Vietnam is weighing joining the Philippines’ arbitration case against China, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters in Manila today. Philippines and Indonesia signed today an agreement defining maritime boundaries on overlapping economic zones, after 20 years of negotiations.

“This indeed is a model, a good example that any border disputes including maritime border tension can be resolved peacefully,” Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in a speech at the presidential palace in Manila.

President Xi Jinping has made it a priority to boost China as a maritime power as he asserts the country’s right to mine, fish and patrol a large part of the South China Sea. With most of China’s claims overlapping with countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, the risk of outright conflict has grown as China expands its naval reach.

Lessons of History

“One would hope that people have learned from the lessons of history that war is futile,” Aquino said in the interview at Malacanang Palace. “The tensions we were feeling beforehand have increased given that all of this brinkmanship might evolve into a clash that nobody wants.”

China’s actions, including locating an oil rig in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam that set off violent anti-China protests in the country, have brought Communist Vietnam and the Philippines closer. That’s been driven in part by growing doubts over the extent of U.S. protection against China’s military rise.

“The strategic alliance between the Philippines and Vietnam against China shows that all of Asean combined is no match to China’s power,” Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, said in a telephone interview. “Both know that they need the support of a more powerful country to get what they want, and that is the U.S. Vietnam knows it can’t assume that the U.S. will come to its rescue because they’re not treaty allies, unlike the Philippines, so it wants to ride that.”

Legal Action

Vietnam is considering taking legal action against China over the oil rig near the contested Paracel Islands, which could support the Philippine arbitration case under way with the United Nations over shoals off its coast, Aquino said.

“They really have been helpful, for instance they have explained to us how they dealt with China, what are the perspectives,” he said of Vietnam.

Ties with Vietnam have already deepened, he said. “They have all been very honest partners. They have been very clear about their intentions, their issues, problems.”

Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has been in Manila this week, while his deputy has been in Japan, a country separately in dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea. Dung said Vietnam will decide soon what legal course if any to take, Aquino said, citing their conversations.

“China tells us that in their culture bringing their neighbor to court is the last thing to do,” Aquino said. “Our perspective is, having it resolved one way or the other is a lot better than having it in limbo right now.”

Common Challenges

Vietnam and the Philippines agreed to boost military and maritime cooperation, Aquino and Dung said separately in speeches on May 21 in Manila.

“We face common challenges as maritime nations and brothers in Asean,” Aquino said May 21 in comments to the World Economic Forum on East Asia. Dung called maritime cooperation a pillar of ties between the two countries.

Vietnam has also been seeking to cast its dispute with China as being beyond the two countries, even as the 10-member Asean sticks with its stated neutrality on the disputes and to calling on all parties to show self-restraint.

“Peace and stability in the eastern sea has been seriously threatened, causing concerns in the region and the world,” Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam said yesterday in a speech in Tokyo. “We are resolved to use necessary measures to protect our national sovereignty.”

China’s Map

China bases its claims to the South China Sea on its “nine-dash line” map, first published in 1947. That map extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run. Talks on a code of conduct to preserve freedom of navigation in the area have made little progress since China agreed to start discussions in July.

Aquino said this week that China violated a 2002 declaration on conduct in the South China Sea with its reclamation efforts in the disputed Johnson South Reef.

The Philippines challenged China’s claims at a United Nations tribunal in March, asking it to uphold its right to exploit waters within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China’s most-recent actions in the South China Sea come after U.S. President Barack Obama used a briefing in Manila to say he was not seeking to contain or control China, and that the focus of U.S. foreign policy had shifted from deploying combat troops to “avoiding errors.”

Defending Allies

The Philippines and the U.S. signed an agreement last month that will boost the American troop presence in the Southeast Asian nation. The lack of direct U.S. intervention on unfolding crises such as that in Crimea has highlighted whether it will make good on its promises to defend allies such as the Philippines if needed.

Even so, Aquino said the U.S. are “honorable people” and “we have a very long-running mutual defense treaty.”

“We know that there are challenges at the political level at this time in Asia,” Yudhoyono said in Manila today. “The position of Asean is clear, the position of Indonesia is clear, that any of the tension must be resolved peacefully without the use of military force.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Clarissa Batino in Manila at cbatino@bloomberg.net; Joel Guinto in Manila at jguinto1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net Andrew Davis

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