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BEIJING is unlikely to restrain actions in the disputed South China Sea after a military alliance of 30 western states labeled China a “systemic challenge,” Philippine-based political experts said at the weekend.
Herman Joseph S. Kraft, who heads the University of the Philippines (UP) Department of Political Science, said China does not allow itself “to be swayed by public scrutiny.”
“It has its own way of dealing with the situation in the SCS,” he told BusinessWorld in a Viber message.
During a summit recently convened in Madrid, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) said China’s “attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.”
Top leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand also attended the NATO summit for the first time.
The South China Sea, a key global shipping route, is subject to overlapping territorial claims involving China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Each year, trillions of dollars of trade flow through the sea, which is also rich in fish and gas.
“China’s policies and practices in the South China Sea have been under increased public scrutiny particularly after the 2012 Scarborough incident and the landmark decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Even with the pandemic, China has not moderated its audacity in the South China Sea,” Jaime B. Naval, a UP political science professor, told BusinessWorld in a Facebook message.
Nonetheless, “continuing public scrutiny, international pressure and sagacious backchanneling efforts are vital in pressing on China to temper its ways,” Mr. Naval said.
China has refused to recognize the 2016 arbitral ruling that voided its claims to more than 80% of the disputed seas.
The Philippines has since filed several diplomatic protests against China due to its continued presence within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Former President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who pursued friendly relations with China, terminated oil and gas explorations between the two countries before his six-year term ended on June 30.
Mr. Kraft said this means negotiations under the new administration of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr. will have to start from scratch, “But from what the President has been saying, it seems there is an interest in building relations with China.”
He said he expects Mr. Marcos to enact policies similar to that of his predecessor.
“He should try 60-40 since this is what our Constitution mandates,” Mr. Kraft said, referring to the sharing agreement in joint exploration deals. “If the area being negotiated is in our EEZ, he should do no less.”
Mr. Naval said the new leader might also go for a strategy that makes a “distinction between partners as in the economic sense, and allies as in the traditional security sense.”
“It is very likely that economic ties with China would be sustained, and be given a boost,” he said. “However, on the alliance side, if the new president is indeed sending a nuanced signal, trying to distinguish between partners and allies, then our concerned MDT (mutual defense treaty) ally would be advised to heed the message and act accordingly,” he added.
Under the treaty, the United States, one of the 12 founding members of NATO, and the Philippines must help each other in case of any external aggression.
NATO has called out China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies” and warned of the deepening strategic partnership between China and Russia, citing the latter as a threat with its continued aggression against Ukraine.
They criticized Beijing’s defense-building and economic policies, among other aspects, but at the same time remain open to “constructive engagement” with China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian last week asserted that the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept has “misrepresented facts and distorted the truth,” saying that the document sought to “stoke confrontation and antagonism and smacks heavily of Cold War mentality and ideological bias.”
“China is gravely concerned over this and firmly opposes it,” according to a transcript of his press conference posted on their website Thursday,
Mr. Zhao stressed that China is committed to a path of peaceful development, aiming to build a shared future for all mankind. — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan