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Ambiguity offers diversion from nationalism in South China Sea

By Alan Chong and Emrys Chew (Global Times)

16:36, July 04, 2012

Editor's Note:Protests against China's stance in the South China Sea have recently been staged in Vietnam and the Philippines. Calls for action have become more prominent on all sides. But with no universally accepted legal ruling on the situation, how can calmer heads prevail amid a sea of competing claims?

Recent attempts to prescribe solutions to the ongoing standoff between China and the Philippines over their rival claims to the Nansha Islands in the South China Sea combine large doses of good intentions with a clinical approach to international law. These efforts fly in the face of very stiff political winds.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is itself muddled when it comes to framing maritime geography as squares and straight lines. Then, in late April, an International Crisis Group report attributed perceived Chinese aggression to severely inadequate inter-ministry coordination and the political exploitation of nationalism.

All these prognoses assume, dangerously, that history, memory and informal maritime practices on the ground are irrelevant to the current standoff. The reality is that these non-litigable factors loom very large in the daily practice of Asian international relations, over the seas that encompass the pan-Asian region.

Many policy circles forget that 21st-century Asia still grapples with the crippling legacies of past centuries. The traumas of alien jurisdiction imported under colonial conditions from the West have left scars etched deeply into both psychological mindscapes and political landscapes.

China was heir to a grand nationalist revitalization project. Commencing in the late 1880s with Sun Yat-sen's global outreach to rally the Chinese diaspora toward a modern political awakening, such nationalism brooked no compromise in pursuing a restoration of unity to the Chinese people.


It was emphatically territorial: from the xenophobic attempts to regain sovereignty conceded from opium wars, gunboat diplomacy and unequal treaties over a "century of humiliation" to the non-negotiable goal of recovering Taiwan.

The Filipino struggle, expressed militarily and intellectually, first against Spain and then the US, was about proving themselves ready for national independence. It was novelist and independence advocate José Rizal's writings that awakened a spiritual nationalism in the young country, similar to that experienced in Germany in the eighteenth century.

For Filipino and Chinese nationalists alike, World War II was significantly about fighting a just war for one's pride and home against an imperial foreign power. Both China and the Philippines embody a collective spiritual need to defend or recover "lost" territories.

The collective nationalist urges to dominate and demarcate territory notwithstanding, history has also yielded boundary-defying patterns of social commingling between peoples on the ground.

Before the militarization of rival claims in the mid-1970s, virtually all reports on the Nansha Islands indicate that fisherfolk from claimant countries availed themselves regularly of the abundant fish stock in these waters. Commercial vessels of all sizes and flags have transited the disputed waters on their cargo routes.

China and the Philippines have both promoted tourism in the disputed zone, even though they argue this reinforces territorial sovereignty. Social activity has added a seemingly universal layer of virtual claim on a "regional commons," thereby defying any straightforward assertion of sovereignty.


Yet such mixed-usage, boundary-defying patterns of human activity are rooted historically in Asian political cultures, pre-dating even the Western import labeled as the nation-state. Itinerant traders, nomadic fisherfolk, international tourists and pan-Asian missionaries of every religious persuasion have crisscrossed Asian maritime frontiers without regard to sovereignty as we know it.

Occasionally, these travelers and traffickers were subjected to piratical attack, but just as frequently, they visited ports along their transit routes in the South China Sea and Malacca Strait on the basis of the port's reputation for just governance, religious piety, and "value added" commercial services.

China and the Philippines, alongside the remaining four claimants, will need to reconcile the complex histories that drive their sovereign territorial nationalisms with the informal maritime practices on the ground. One possibility is the structural face-saving ambiguity inherent in the ASEAN Way.

China and the Philippines have chosen the best path by jointly recalling their ships for reasons of maritime safety in the face of a typhoon, all without jeopardizing their respective claims. Even ongoing third party-involved joint oil extraction ventures could be deemed a continuation of time-honored practices of peacefully sharing an Asian commons, without drawing fine lines in the water.

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