Obama Cancels Most of His Asia Trip

The antics of Republican US Congressmen have led to the cancellation of almost all of President Barack Obama's trip to Southeast Asia, although his schedule is still in doubt over the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference to be held next week.

The US domestic political crisis may well lead to the cancellation of that visit as well. Unless there is some resolution of the US budget issue, it is unlikely that anybody in Southeast Asia will see the US chief executive anytime soon although aborting the trip risks telling America's East Asia allies that there are risks of a diminished US commitment despite the administration's much-discussed "Asia pivot." .

Americans need to worry about how these congressmen are demeaning the nation in the eyes of the world.

Filipinos on the other hand will be worried about the impact of a failure to come to an area to which Obama has attached so much importance just at the time China is stroking the soft underbelly of Asean in an attempt to isolate the Philippines.

In essence, China is pursuing an overtly aggressive attitude to Manila while engaging in sweet talk with other concerned Asean members. Beijing's effective seizure of the Scarborough Shoal last year with the stationing of coast guard as well as fishing vessels there has been followed, says the Philippines, by the dumping of concrete blocks which appear to be the precursor of construction. China has responded with a somewhat ambiguous denial of this claim while attacking Manila for allegedly creating obstacles to negotiating a Code of Conduct between the South China Sea claimants.

China's diplomats under the new foreign minister Wang Yi have been busy with trying to improve relations which were strained in 2011-12 by expressing willingness to discuss the Code of Conduct. A preliminary meeting was held in Suzhou in September after which the semi-official China Daily attacked the Philippines for trying to disrupt China-Asean consultations.

China's diplomats have been deftly trying to persuade the soft-centered diplomats of Indonesia and Malaysia into believing there has been a real change of heart in Beijing rather than a shift in tactics despite its actions on the ground and despite the fact that it says that agreeing the code will be a long and difficult process. Wang Yi has visited most Asean countries except the Philippines in advance of a China-Asean summit this month, which will give China another opportunity to talk trade, investment and good neighborliness.

At the same time Beijing has not budged one inch from its claim to the whole sea as defined by its infamous nine-dotted line, which encompasses almost every rock and shoal in the sea and goes within a few nautical miles of the coasts of the littoral nations. Thus, for example, it describes Scarborough shoal as its "inherent territory" even though it is not a habitable island and lies well within Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

The Chinese principle being applied here can equally well be used to seize the islands, shoals and banks off the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - and probably disrupt any attempt by Indonesia to exploit the gas fields off the Natuna Islands. But by mending fences temporarily with Vietnam, till recently the most resilient opponent of Chinese claims, keeping the Malaysians quiet as an implied quid pro quo for not speaking up against racism against ethnic Chinese, and exploiting Indonesia's desire to be seen as a "nice guy", however ineffective in its diplomacy China seems to be succeeding in changing the climate - and making Manila uncomfortable.

China is also hoping that by agreeing to discuss the Code of Conduct - but meanwhile creating facts on the ground - it has taken attention away from Manila's referral of the claim to international arbitration. This move badly upset China, which will use all its influence to avoid internationalization of issues which it claims are entirely bilateral.

It was certainly a bold move but do not imagine that much will come of it for a long time, if ever. Manila did not - contrary to many assumptions - take the case to the International Court of Justice, the court which settled island disputes between Malaysia and Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore. The ICJ is a UN body and its decisions are enforceable - though also subject to veto by Security Council members such as China. Nor did it go to the International Tribunal on Law of the Sea which rules on the UN Law of Sea issues. Both would probably have needed China to agree to an international ruling which it would never do. The issues also may fall into both the remits of both the ICJ and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Instead it has had to go to the Permanent Court of Arbitration which sits in the same Peace Palace as the ICJ in The Hague in the Netherlands. This is a venue for arbitration not judicial decision. It may eventually express an opinion but no more.

The Philippines gave notice of its action in January but so far the Court is only to the stage of appointing a five-man tribunal to hear the issue, headed by Judge Thomas Mensah of Ghana, judges from France, Poland and Germany and a professor from the Netherlands.

In due course it will hear evidence from the Philippines. But China rejected the Philippine notice of referral so it can be assume that it will take no part in the proceedings. Any victory for Manila would be an embarrassment for China, but no more. Even that may be difficult as the judges may decline to rule in the absence of Chinese evidence.

Thus the likely failure of Obama at this time to visit the Malay (in its broadest sense) world and show that the US flag as a still reliable counterweight to Chinese designs, would be a particular blow. For the region as a whole it would add to questions about how far the US has the political commitment and money to sustain its "tilt" towards East Asia.

As it is the US commitment to Philippines defense is somewhat ambiguous. Manila gets far less military funding from Washington than Indonesia does, if only because Philippine forces are ill-equipped to manage more - especially the naval and air capability needed to external defense.

The US is also hobbled by its neutrality on specific island claims. China makes much of the fact that the Scarborough Shoal - and other disputed South China Sea features - lies just outside the Philippines as defined by the Treaty of Paris which passed control from one colonial power to another - Spain to the USA. Filipinos were never consulted - nor is there any evidence of a Chinese claim or presence at that time. The shoal lies 135 miles from the coast of Luzon and 350 miles from the mainland of China.

The US together with its Japanese, Australian, Korean and other allies has its own strategic reasons for countering China's claim to the whole sea. But if China can in practice advance this little by little by seizing small but strategically located rocks and shoals off others' coasts it could gradually change what historically was a Malay sea into a Chinese lake.