15 Aug, 2016
As much as Washington may hate it, the fact is Beijing and Manila are diplomatically discussing the situation in the South China Sea.
Champagne bottles are not popping yet, but Special Philippine envoy, former President Fidel Ramos, did go to Hong Kong, and on behalf of President Rodrigo Duterte, got together with Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee of the National People’s Congress. On the record, Ramos made sure that Manila is all in for formal negotiations.
The starting block concerns some fishy business – literally. Beijing and Manila may be on their way already to open the highly disputed Scarborough shoal, which falls right into what Manila describes as the West Philippine Sea, to both Chinese and Filipino fishermen, as in the joint development of fish farms.
Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, let it be known that Ramos’s visit to Hong Kong was just an opener. Of course his next step will have to be a trip to Beijing to talk to the high-stakes power players. Then the way will be paved for a formal Duterte state visit.
So, for the moment, everyone is behaving in a very Asian “win-win” way, with no loss of face involved. And yet, in parallel, there’s been
speculation that Beijing has identified a unique widow of opportunity between the G-20 in Huangzhou, next month, and the US presidential election in early November, to come up with extra “facts on the sea” in the form of added reclamation and building of naval installations.
What Beijing wants in the long term is clear. Scarborough shoal in particular is a key piece in the larger puzzle. A Chinese airstrip is all but inevitable because it extends the reach of the PLA’s air force by over 1,000km, and positions it to be active off Luzon, no less than the gateway to the Western Pacific.
With the airstrip in Scarborough shoal and an early warning system on Macclesfield Bank – just east of the Paracel Islands – Beijing will be finally able to “see” all the action, friendly but mostly unfriendly, emanating from the sprawling US naval base at Guam.