The recent crisis around Huangyan island, where ships from China and the Philippines are in a stalemate against each other, is only one of the challenges the Philippines raised against China over the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Although there has been friction between the two countries in the past, the present conflict has been drawn out. Actually the Philippines has previously arrested Chinese fisherman in disputed waters, this time they refused to set them free even after China resorted to diplomatic negotiations.
On the contrary, after China’s fishery law enforcement ships arrived to the disputed area, the Philippines heightened tensions by sending warships. A stalemate was thus created, with the danger of a military conflict also possible, the incident is also speculated as a world focus.
As the most recent version of the territorial disputed developed, the Philippines sought security cooperation with the United States. This time it seems as if the country wants to drive China to the corner and legitimize its territorial claims..
To realize that ambition, the Philippines has also tried to introduce external forces for intervention. If the incident escalates into open military conflict, it would involve its most powerful ally, the US, into the game against China. Even if it does not, the Philippines can also appeal to international society as “a small, bullied” country, and rally more forces against China by speculating the old, fading “China threat theory”.
Without doubt, if the affair develops as the Philippines wishes, which means getting support from US and other allies, the Philippines would be even tougher against China in the future.
The Philippines seem to have thoroughly thought out this plan. However, there is one deficiency: neither the US nor other its allies are under its control. Actually, the US-Philippine alliance is a typical alliance between a big power and a small country, in which the big power fears most of being dragged into a direct conflict, while the small country fears being sacrificed by its powerful friend for a bargain.
Therefore the US policy regarding China is balanced rather than one-sided: US wants to make use of China’s disputes with its neighboring countries to contain and balance this opponent, but it will never involve itself into any direct military conflict with China. Its recent promise of not “taking sides” is the best testimony of the policy.
Absence of US support puts the Philippines into one embarrassing position: if it proceeds into a military conflict, it will have to face the situation alone without any strong external support; if it draws back from the eyeball-to-eyeball tension it will humiliate itself. The Philippines has actually driven itself, not China, into the corner. Now all it can do is to wait for US and other allies to ease the tension.
Throughout the crisis, China has undertaken a very wise policy. On one hand, it has well defended its claim of sovereignty by sending fishery law enforcement ships; on the other hand, it has strictly obeyed the principle of not firing the first shot, and kept its warships from directly joining the conflict.
In the coming future, I think China can continue its current policy, which is both tough and safe. And I advise it follow the four principles to expedite a solution to the problem:
First, be tough with any matter concerning sovereignty, and never give up a single step in claiming its sovereignty over the islands;
Second, keep interactions with world media, so that more countries will know China is defending justice and its territory against Philippines’ unreasonable demand;
Third, keep effective and unimpeded communications with the international society, and let the world know its bottom line that such threats from the Philippines are intolerable and should never appear again;
Fourth, advocate solving the matter through peaceful and diplomatic means, and call for all sides to obey the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which should be the basic rule of action there.
The Huangyan island crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity for China, which has territorial disputes with neighbors throughout the South China Sea. We hope the current crisis can get resolved in a satisfying way so as to offer an exemplary precept for all other disputes to follow.
Yang Yi is a rear admiral and former director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the People's Liberation Army National Defense University.