Time to crack heads and sign accord on South China Sea

Time to crack heads and sign accord on South China Sea

IN the interests of full disclosure, let me reveal that former Philippine President Fidel Ramos and I have been friends since we met in the State Department in Washington DC several years ago.

The encounter was in the august Benjamin Franklin Room, which contains a desk on which the 1783 peace treaty between Great Britain and the newly independent United States was signed.

A few months before meeting Ramos, another incident occurred that also requires disclosure: the then Philippine Ambassador to the US wined and dined me at the elite Army & Navy Club in Washington.

After this elegant culinary delight, Ambassador Albert del Rosario kindly gave me a ride back to my office in his capacious and bullet-proof limousine.

And with mock apologies for the long introduction and shameful name-dropping, let me include yet another relevant disclosure.

At an all expenses-paid luncheon at the Nikko Hotel in Hanoi, I upset US Senator Jim Webb by asking why, during his meeting with Vietnam’s leaders, he did not criticise their lack of democracy.

Earlier, he had berated Myanmar because of this, so it might have been expected that he would do the same in dictatorial Vietnam.

But, no, glaring back as if I had pointed out some faecal matter on his senatorial suit, he said, or rather barked: “No. I did not.” Full stop.

Why mention Ramos, Rosario and Webb?

Well, this February, Rosario was appointed Foreign Secretary of the Philippines. He had been slated for the position a year ago, after Benigno Aquino won the presidential election.

But Aquino had promised to let former secretary Alberto Romulo keep the post in return for support from the Iglesia ni Cristo – the powerful Church of Christ organisation, whose members vote en bloc.

After Aquino won, he kept his promise for awhile, but then quickly brought in Rosario, who has close ties to the president’s family.

Now, Rosario is no great shakes, but he does know American politics and he put that knowledge to use when visiting Washington in June.

There, he gave a forceful speech asserting that if China attacked his country’s offshore islands, then, under the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty, America must help Manila fight back.

Actually, the 1951 treaty is unclear on this point, which is why Webb, now chairman of the Senate’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, enters the frame.

He wrote to the State Department  last week asking if the US really is obliged to militarily aid the Philippines if China uses force to occupy South China Sea islands claimed by both countries.

Webb wrote: “Repeated actions by Chinese government vessels against the Philippines raise serious questions about the circumstances under which our treaty commitments apply.”

“Our transparency on this matter is of great importance to our ally, the Philippines, and to the entire Southeast Asian region.”

Webb has a propensity for hyperbole, but in this case he is absolutely right – which is where Mr Ramos comes in.

The former president waxed indignant last Tuesday over Chinese media reports that blamed increased “unfriendliness” in the region on “bad rumours and speculations” by Filipino commentators.

Ramos said the real culprit was Chinese air and sea incursions into Filipino territory, and like Rosario and Webb, he feared armed conflict would ensue unless all parties worked to diminish these tensions.

The parties gave it a shot at last week’s ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, where non-binding guidelines for joint offshore activities were agreed.

But the ever realistic Rosario said this was not good enough and that the failure to resolve disputed territorial claims meant “the problem hasn’t gone away.”

It might go away if he and Ramos and Webb cracked a few heads and brought them to that historic State Department desk to sign a definitive peace treaty for the South China Sea.

Surely, it cannot be more difficult than the one the insidious British signed all those years ago.