Overstretched in South China Sea

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Friday, May 9, 2014


THAT the Philippine National Police (PNP)-Maritime Command was able to seize a Chinese fishing vessel in a shoal near Palawan and arrest 11 members of its crew members showed that China’s claim to the entire South China Sea is difficult to sustain despite the strength of its military.

But first off, the Chinese fishing vessel wasn’t the only boat seized by the PNP. A local fishing vessel with five Muslim crewmen was also seized.

Both the Chinese and Filipino fishermen violated maritime laws. Seized from the Chinese fishermen were around 500 turtles while the Filipino fishermen had 40 turtles. Turtles are considered endangered species.

The seizure of the Chinese fishing vessel was made while confrontation between China and Vietnam erupted in the Paracel islands, which is being claimed by both nations.

The confrontation was sparked by the presence of a Chinese platform digging for oil in the area.

China has declared a three miles exclusion zone around the oil rig but Vietnam ignored it. Vietnam has accused China of ramming into their ships that are patrolling the area and even using water cannons.

To recall, China also used water cannons against Filipino fishermen in January near the Panatag shoal in the West Philippine Sea.

Vietnam has claimed that around 60 Chinese vessels, including military ships, are escorting the oil rig. Meaning that some of the vessels that China used to patrol the disputed areas near the Philippines must already be in the Paracels, allowing the PNP-Maritime Command to operate near Half Moon Shoal where the Chinese vessel was intercepted.

The point is that, as powerful as China’s military is and as big its resources are, it cannot fully guard the disputed territories in the wide expanse of the South China Sea. It can intimidate one or two nations it is quarrelling with at a time but not all of them at the same time.

This is the reason why China wants to deal with countries it is quarrelling with individually. It does not want these countries to unite. Thus, it is using its allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to prevent Asean from making a common stand on the dispute.

Imagine if Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the other claimants making moves to assert their own territorial claims at the same time? China will be forced to stretch its resources to counter each of these moves.

Vietnam’s own experience in its war against the United States shows that a country no matter how big has its weaknesses. Even Mao Zedong’s writings when the Chinese Communist Party waged a war against the US-supported Chiang Kai-shek regime are full of exhortations on how a big force cannot be strong in all places all the time.

We still do not know how the recent initiative of the PNP Maritime Command will pan out. Perhaps, once the confrontation at the Paracels is resolved, China will once more aggressively patrol the disputed territories near the Philippines. But its weakness has been exposed.

Mainland China is too far from the Spratlys or Panatag Shoal. Those territories are closer to Palawan. That is why the Philippines is in a better position to defend its claim there even with a weak military. China may send its ships or even put up bases in the disputed territories but that will cost them much and won’t ensure that the security net they would set up won’t be breached from time to time.

And it is not only the disputed territories near the Philippines that China is protecting. It is therefore constantly in danger of overstretching itself.

(khanwens@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on May 10, 2014.

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