Sunday, May 6, 2012

Transforming the 'Southeast Asian Sea' into a 'Shared Regional Area of Essential Commons' by Rasti Delizo

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Hence, the Southeast Asian Sea’s strategic mineral and aquatic resources cannot be claimed by just a few and in the name of ancient empires that have long ago disappeared into the library of world history.  In the context of today’s global environmental realities, the Southeast Asian Sea must by now be claimed by the many and in the name of a 21st Century world order shared by all of humankind. - Rasti Delizo


12 April 2012

The regionally contentious body of water predominantly known throughout Asia as the South China Sea can yet be transformed into a more mutually beneficial regional asset.  Geographically located in Southeastern Asia, this vastly huge oceanic area is a historically recognized maritime route which expediently acts as a gateway between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.  Many governments currently acknowledge its vital importance due to a vast abundance of natural undersea resources with potential wells of alternative energy supplies.  And for obvious strategic reasons, this prime bio-diversity spot has long become a regional magnet of attraction to various littoral states and major powers surrounding the area.

As such, China, Taiwan and four ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member-countries are now contesting certain sections of the South China Sea for these same reasons. These territorial claims have characteristically alerted other powerful states and multilateral organizations to the pending disputes as they certainly have the potential to spark off a future military conflict.  Since such a war could further conflagrate the entire Asia-Pacific region and inevitably become a dangerous global threat, this overarching regional issue continues to remain a top priority question begging for an immediate solution.

Fundamentally, such an answer must be part of any longer term comprehensive resolution that aims for a more people-centered developmental agenda rather than a purely state-driven one. This is because the latter is usually focused on the interests of the ruling elites while the former is premised on the social-economic needs and aspirations of the region’s peoples who comprise the social majority. In other words, it is the overall common interests of the area’s collective citizenry that must prevail over any short-sighted and narrow aims of the presently ruling regimes.

This ultimately remains both a crux and a dilemma underlying a strategic regional question confounding the East Asian region today. With China now playing a very influential and critical role as the region’s preeminent power, most countries of Southeast Asia are in a quandary as to how to balance their individual and joint relations with Beijing without sacrificing any sovereign interests or attracting the latter’s ire. On the other hand, the United States as a global hegemonic power has recently reinserted its geostrategic weight into the regional equation.  More than two decades after the Cold War ended in December 1991, and nearly twenty years after US military forces were ousted from their longtime military bases in the Philippines in November 1992 America is once again re-pivoting its might all around Asia in an apparent encircling-containment of China.

At present, the regional environmental situation contains a wide range of economic-political-security issues, concerns and challenges.  This broad mix of overlapping interests and multi-pressure points continue to affect the nature and character of the external policy responses of the East Asian countries concerned. Nevertheless, it is the relative positioning of some of the area’s key power centers, specifically China, the US and the ASEAN that tend to influence major events for now.

Hence, any fundamental changes in East Asia’s future regional strategic architecture will have to take into full consideration the directional thrusts of these regional power centers. While both China and the US can be expected to maintain and pursue their respective counter-positional moves against each other for obvious reasons, it is the ASEAN that will have to be the one to initiate and push for an alternative balance in the region.  As a regional association whose member-states are all located in Southeast Asia, ASEAN has to strike an independent path from that of Beijing and Washington. And for it to do so, ASEAN will have to secure a more regionally focused position that is fully centered on the genuine aspirations of the peoples of Southeast Asia and not on the tactical and strategic objectives of the Chinese or the Americans.


Toward this directional setting, the ASEAN should now rethink and reinvent its currently accepted view of, and attitude to, the South China Sea. This has now become fundamentally imperative after no regional unity was reached in terms of a so-called ‘Code of Conduct’ on this question after the recently concluded 20th ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh last April 2-4, 2012.  This latest regional setback is definitely a communal problem which the ASEAN has yet to overcome and soon.

(Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS). ASEAN delegation members attend the concluding session at the 20th ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, April 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith). From here.
And yet, with the currently brewing confrontation between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, this has once again created a new tension point unsettling the area. The present situation is a pressing matter which demands for a positively united response from various parties involved.  Given this developing context, a new regional framework has to urgently be asserted by the Southeast Asian organization to push for the area’s peacefully cooperative stability.

For a start, the ASEAN must immediately propose that the area already be declared a ‘Shared Regional Area of Essential Commons’ or SRAEC.  In the same manner, this SRAEC entity must also be outlined according to its factually precise and geographic location on the global map.  Because it is essentially and practically located within an area bounded by at least seven littoral Southeast Asian states, and all belonging to the ASEAN, it should therefore be renamed as the ‘Southeast Asian Sea’ instead.  Only China and Taiwan are the remaining states bordering the Southeast Asian Sea that do not belong to the ASEAN.

In broad strokes, the SRAEC has to be recognized and upheld by all the common stakeholders presently involved in the region’s long term future.  These will have to include state and non-state entities, together with various regional organizations and even global institutions.  Its basic premise and thrust must be to ensure that all the commonly essential natural maritime resources that are now presently found (and have yet to be discovered) within the parameters of the Southeast Asian Sea have to be collectively shared by all stakeholders, especially the region’s vast humanity and not merely a handful of states and their ruling leaders.

(Photo: Reuters) Tanker Yuri Senkevich sails near the Lufeng oil field, 250 kilometers south-east of
[Hong Kong] in the South China Sea. Photo from here.

Hence, the Southeast Asian Sea’s strategic mineral and aquatic resources cannot be claimed by just a few and in the name of ancient empires that have long ago disappeared into the library of world history.  In the context of today’s global environmental realities, the Southeast Asian Sea must by now be claimed by the many and in the name of a 21st Century world order shared by all of humankind.


In pursuing the conceptual framework of a Shared Regional Area of Essential Commons, the ASEAN and proponents of a Southeast Asian Sea-based SRAEC will also have to principally ensure its independence and neutrality. That means, the SRAEC should assert from its declared onset that it cannot be absolutely claimed (wholly or partially) by any one state or regional entity, such as China or the ASEAN. And even more so, the SRAEC must not become a conflict zone under the geopolitical maneuverings of any global superpower, specifically the imperialist thrusts of the US.

No to US imperialism, Chinese expansionism! Photo from here.

The greater challenge in this regard remains the need to break free from the reactionary mindset of realpolitik still guiding the key players on the Southeast Asian Sea question.  It will certainly not be very easy to change the counter-posed views of both Beijing and Washington in relation to their respective hegemonic agendas over the broader Asia-Pacific region.  At the same time, ASEAN is not collectively united in taking a more independently neutral stance toward both China and the US.  This is because it is primarily the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam that are highly prone to lean on to the US as a counterforce to China and as such, this imbalance inside the ASEAN is now being exploited by Beijing.

In this regard, China continues to strongly push its demands for a more bilateral and regionally-focused solution to the current regional dilemma affecting the Southeast Asian Sea area.  In contrast to this, the US is pushing for a more multilateral approach to solve the regional contradiction.  In effect, the Chinese want to ensure their clear dominance over their Southeast Asian neighbors without any interference from another superpower rival across the Pacific Ocean.  And in an almost similar manner, the Americans also aim to once more intervene within the area by realigning pro-US countries from Southeast Asia behind its imperialist dictation through a geostrategic coalition to contain the Chinese expansionist actions and aimed at enhancing American control over the Southeast Asian region.

A Caring and Sharing ASEAN. See Cebu declaration here.
At the end of the day, only a progressive direction and an openly participative process within the framework of a Shared Regional Area of Essential Commons for the peoples living around the Southeast Asian Sea can radically alter the balance of power in this highly contentious but vital corner of the world.  And maybe perhaps this could become a critically necessary step toward genuinely building a more ‘caring and sharing’ ASEAN common area for all. RTD

*Rasti Delizo is a former head of the Political/Security Affairs Staff of the Macroeconomy and Political Affairs Office (MPO) of the Presidential Management Staff - Office of the President (PMS-OP). He used to teach international politics and Philippine foreign policy.
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James Matthew Miraflor said...

Comment from Prof. Eduardo Tadem (who I hailed in my post on Philippine and Indonesian development) from the FDC yahoo groups:

At last, a progressive, pro-people and non-chauvinist alternative solution to the South China Sea conflict. A refreshing take on the issue in contrast to the saber-rattling, ultra-patriotic, and jingoistic stance taken by the Manila state, business and landed groups, political parties, the military and almost all civil society and Left groups.

Good work, Rasti! Needs a lot of fine-tuning but definitely a step in the right direction.

Eduardo Climaco Tadem, Ph.D.
Professor of Asian Studies
University of the Philippines Diliman
1101 Quezon City, Philippines
Tel/Fax: +6329270909

James Matthew Miraflor said...

Facebook Comment from Sonny Melencio, Chairperson of the Partido Lakas ng Masa:

This is a well-thought out proposal on how Asian countries should deal with the conflicting claims on the islands, shoals and reefs surrounding South China Sea. It is also the most peaceful solution I’ve read so far. Other alternative involves war and escalation of military conflicts! Or opening up of undue intervention of non-Asian, non-claimant imperialist countries such as the United States. Of course the processes have to still be sorted out. The proposal serves as a guide to solve the conflict in a peaceful and equitable manner. Kudos, Rasti.

James Matthew Miraflor said...

Comment from JJ Domingo, a student of international relations and currently an intern on the Presidential Management Staff:

I get the idea, but the post is quite vague on the details. How would the sharing mechanism be determined? Would China be a party to the sharing arrangement? If it is, then I'm afraid it would be able to take the bigger slice in the pie, so to speak. Also, I believe that this shared commons must not include areas that are well within the Philippine continental shelf like the Recto Bank. It must only apply to the areas that are disputed, and not to those that aren't.

James Matthew Miraflor said...

Comment from Robin Lucas, champion debater and former Vice President of the Minimal Government Movement:

‎JJ is correct in pointing out how vague the post was in how it would achieve its goals, and I would like to add that I completely disagree with the idea that it should be "shared" in the sense that a certain area can be exploited by everyone. No one's going to be happy about it and it would only lead to governments muscling in as quickly as possible to grab as many rocks in the sea as possible. Better to delineate the lines where governments would have exclusive jurisdiction.

Additionally, China and Taiwan ought to be expelled from any arrangement like that. After all, if we validate their "historical claim" on one rock, it stands to reason that the "historical claim" is valid on principle and trumps current international law, but also it would give them an equal claim over all the other rocks in the area. After all, the basis for their claim is different from the claim of other nations (except perhaps for Vietnam). Their basis does not allow for compromise or sharing, and recognizing the basis of their claim would seriously disrupt the process of resolving territorial disputes. By that definition, Italy can lay claim to all of Europe west of the Rhine and China can lay claim to all of Asia. Heck, Mongolia can lay claim to a landmass from the Kamchatka to Hungary and from the North Pole to the Indian Ocean.

Ultimately, the proposal sounds nice, but it won't go anywhere, and actually making it work is more trouble than it's worth.

James Matthew Miraflor said...

A similar idea was proposed by Atty. Tony Oposa through an LTTE in the Inquirer. See an excerpt below:

Open letter to Aquino
By: Antonio A. Oposa Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Saturday, May 12, 2012

I respectfully write to you, Mr. President, as a Filipino frustrated that a certain neighbor has been acting like a bully, with us on the receiving end... But may I suggest that instead of fighting over the pieces of land that make up the Spratly Islands, the dimension of the debate be changed. It’s small thinking to quarrel over a few pieces of rock in the middle of a big sea in the hope of finding oil to take out and use up for the present needs of a single country...

My respectful suggestion: that the Philippines initiate a move to declare the entire Spratly Islands and the West Philippine Sea (aka the South China Sea) an international marine reserve and nature park. By doing that, we will not directly antagonize any of the other countries claiming the parts of or the whole Spratlys. The Philippines will take the moral high road... Rather than fight with the other claimant-countries in competition to use resources for the present, we will bring the countries together in cooperation to reserve resources for the future.

The other claimant-countries may well resist the initiative. That is expected and is most welcome because it will spark a worldwide debate. It will show the world how beautiful is the prospect of having an international marine park for peace. Resistance from the other claimant-countries will not look good on the pages of history.

...The Spratlys can even be an international observation center for the adverse effects of global warming on coral reefs and marine life... We can propose the establishment of an International Marine Station... There is no limit to the benefits of cooperation when people understand that no one really owns anything, and that we are all just passing through.

This move to protect marine life is especially significant because the initiative will be undertaken by the Philippines, which is known as “the center of the center of marine biodiversity on Earth.” Precisely because our seas are the most gifted, we have the credibility to advocate their conservation...

“The coastal State, taking into account the best scientific evidence available to it, shall ensure through proper conservation and management measures that the maintenance of the living resources in the exclusive economic zone is not endangered by over-exploitation. As appropriate, the coastal State and competent international organizations, whether subregional, regional or global, shall cooperate to this end.” (Art 61, UNCLOS).

...For a start, Mr. President, you can issue a presidential proclamation declaring the areas of the Spratly Islands and the surrounding seas claimed by the Philippines as a nationally protected area and marine reserve...This initiative will show the seriousness of purpose of the Philippines in their desire for peace and for the protection of marine life for the benefit of future generations.

After having done this, or simultaneously with the declaration of our claimed islands and surrounding seas as a protected area, we can begin the international campaign to have it declared an International Marine Reserve and a UN World Heritage Site.

...Whether we achieve that or not in your term or in your and our lifetimes, we shall have started the process of mobilizing the world community to view the problem of the Spratlys as an opportunity. For it is an opportunity, not for intense competition for more resources for the present, but for friendly cooperation for the benefit of future generations. It will be “Spratly Islands Fish Bank.”...

Antonio A. Oposa Jr., lawyer and environmental activist, is a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2009. He is the pioneer in the practice of environmental law in the Philippines.

James Matthew Miraflor said...

It is nice to know that Rasti's article gained attention and appeared in two popular dailies.


In the Philippines, it came out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Shared regional area
By: Rasti Delizo
Thursday, May 17th, 2012


In Malaysia, it came out in The Star:

Sunday May 20, 2012
Claiming the South China Sea

Annette Hug, UP Alumni 1995 said...

Many thanks for this inspiring article and discussion. Could the international administration of Antarctica provide useful lessons on how to achieve a Shared Reagional Area?