Demilitarize West Philippine Sea, analyst says

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MANILA -- Countries contesting ownership of parts of the West Philippine Sea should demilitarize disputed areas to avoid a shooting war, an analyst said Monday.



This is just one of the practical solutions to avoid military conflict in the region, according to Dr. Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a reseach fellow of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.


Chalermpalanupap, who served nearly 20 years at the ASEAN Secretariat, said in a ISEAS paper that the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and other countries claiming parts of the West Philippine Sea should set up hot lines, as well as publish and distribute maps showing coordinates of their respective claims.


"Claimants can stop reinforcing and start scaling down their respective military occupation of disputed areas. All of them, except Brunei Darussalam, have deployed troops to give de facto effect to their claims, particularly in the Spratly group of islands," he said.


He added that while the current Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the West Philippine Sea discourages "inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features", it does not say anything on the deployment of troops in disputed areas.


"Fortunately, these troops have not engaged in any direct armed hostility. Withdrawing them with a common understanding that doing so will not jeopardize any party’s claims will be a significant goodwill gesture," he said.


He also mentioned Taiwan, whose troops are occupying Taiping or Itu Aba -- the largest island in the Spratlys.


"Perhaps Taiwan can take the lead in proposing a complete military withdrawal from all disputed areas in the South China Sea. How the other claimants will respond will be an interesting development to watch," Chalermpalanupap said.




Chalermpalanupap said an emergency communication network between countries will allow governments to quickly contact each other and help defuse any situation in any disputed area before it escalates into an armed clash or international crisis.


This was proposed by Brunei Darussalam during the 7th ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM).


"This can be further discussed and pursued in the framework of the ADMM-Plus process, in which ASEAN Defense Ministers engage 8 dialogue partners in several areas, including maritime security," Chalermpalanupap said.


He said serious incidents in the disputed areas occur because claimant countries take unilateral action to stop a foreign party from asserting its national law and maritime jurisdiction.


"More often than not, coastguard or fishery surveillance vessels with armed officers -- not naval warships -- are involved," he said. "Here lies the grey area of the principle of non-use of force: using force in law enforcement and self-defence is usually permissible, especially when a lawbreaker violently resists arrest or refuses to obey instructions of law enforcement authorities. The exercise of non-use of force must be coupled with restraint amongst claimants."


"Non-use of force or no first use of force, is ideal. No country would reject it. But one should not count on it to keep the peace or prevent unpleasant incidents in disputed areas in the South China Sea," he said.


Dr. Ian Storey, an ISEAS senior fellow, warned in a separate paper published June 7 that developments in the West Philippine Sea "keep moving in the wrong direction" despite agreement by ASEAN and China to initiate talks on a Code of Conduct.


"So long as the actions of the principal actors continue to be motivated by nationalist rhetoric, an unwillingness to compromise sovereignty claims and competition over access to maritime resources, there is little prospect that this trend will be reversed any time soon," Storey said.




He said that legal experts welcomed the Philippines' move to resolve the territorial disputes through legal arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Analysts, however, expressed disappointment at China's rejection of Manila's decision.


"Law professor Jerome Cohen, for instance, argued that by refusing to participate in the proceedings, China was projecting the image of a 'bully' and a 'violator' of international law, while Peter Dutton noted that China had missed an important opportunity to reassure 'increasingly anxious neighbors that it is committed to institutional rather than power-based resolution of disputes,'" Storey said.


Legal proceedings on the case filed by the Philippines will continue despite China's rejection.


He said the remaining judges for a 5-person Arbitral Tribunal, including one to represent China, were appointed in March by the president of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea.


The Tribunal can decide as early as July if the Philippines' submission falls within its jurisdiction.


However, Storey said it could be several years before it issues a final ruling on the case itself.


"Any ruling handed down by the tribunal will be binding but not enforceable. Should the Tribunal rule that China's claims are incompatible with UNCLOS, however, it will represent a legal and moral victory for the Philippines and would put the onus on China to clarify the bases of its maritime claims. Given China’s rejection of the tribunal, however, Beijing is likely to simply ignore the ruling," he said.