Philippine Foreign Secretary Sows South China Sea Confusion

Attacks US, Malaysia in irrational speech

The Philippine government may have a foreign policy, but defining it by anything other than tweeted insults from Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin is baffling its neighbors and supposed allies.

Locsin (above) has launched two extraordinary attacks on Malaysia and one on the United States while claiming to be protecting the 2016 award by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration of the Spratly Islands to the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

First, he accused Malaysia of trying to sabotage Philippine success in the arbitration although ever since he and Duterte came to office they have focused on improving relations with China on the grounds that the Philippines is too weak to oppose China and too in need of Chinese investment. Duterte reiterated this point in his State of the Nation Address on July 27.

Quite what the Malaysian “sabotage” consisted of was doubly bizarre given that on July 29 the Malaysian mission to the United Nations on July 29 sent a note to the UN Secretary-General, saying China's claim to the maritime features in the East Sea (also known as the South China Sea) has no basis under international law. It noted that China’s “nine-dash line” was contrary to the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea and rejected China’s claims to “historic rights.” This was the most overt and strongly-worded Malaysian riposte to China in recent times

Locsin re-emphasized the Philippine Spratly claims, which partly overlap those of Malaysia and Vietnam. But these island rock claims, which do not qualify for Exclusive Economic Zones, are relatively minor matters compared with the EEZs of the littoral states –- such as Philippine rights to exploit the Reed (Recto) Bank northeast of the Spratlys which is rich in hydrocarbon deposits. Despite disagreements on island ownerships, Vietnam and Malaysian have cooperated on EEZ issues.

Instead of taking Malaysia’s statement as support for Philippine’s arbitration award, “Teddy Boy,” as he is known, embarked on attacking both Malaysia and the US for not accepting the Philippine claim to Sabah. Referring to a US statement on another topic, he tweeted “Sabah is not in Malaysia if you want to have anything to do with the Philippines”. He also accused Malaysia of stirring rebellion in the Muslim area of the Philippines.

That this claim can remain on any agenda is a tribute to the infantile character of much Philippines politics. Suffice here to say that the claim to Sabah, supposedly based on then Sultan of Sulu’s deal with a British company in 1878, was not supported either by Spain, then Sulu’s overlord, nor subsequently by the succeeding power, the US, nor by the British or anyone else.

Sabah was originally part of Brunei. British North Borneo, now Sabah, came about because of two land concessions given to Austrian Baron von Overbeck and then taken up by British corporate interests, only one of which was by the Sultan of Sulu. The first, in 1877, was by the Sultan of Brunei, who previously had been the overlord of Sulu, followed by one by the Sultans of Sulu shortly afterwards.

Sulu then controlled it for a time but by the mid-19th century exercised no power there. Just a few months after ceding lands in Borneo, the Sulu sultan finally acknowledged Spanish suzerainty but neither Spain nor, 20 years later when Sulu acknowledged US suzerainty, did either exercise any claims in Borneo.

(History also tells us that before the Spanish conquest, Maynila, in early history a Pasig River delta trading settlement where Intramuros is now, was ruled by a Soliman from the Brunei royal house. Maybe Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah should demand it back.)

Thus, on the basis of pre-and post-colonial history, Brunei has a far better right than Manila to claim Sabah -- not to forget its previous rule of Maynila and the Sulu archipelago.

Slightly further back, Javanese states controlled the region's trading hubs including pre-Muslim Sulu.

Nor has any other nation given the slightest hint of accepting the Philippines claim, pursued off and on since the 1960s. Philippines’ partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regard the claim as disruptive and suggest that in fact the country barely belongs in the region. For Vietnam and Indonesia and others resisting China’s sea claims, Locsin’s stirring of issues with Malaysia may be seen as a Duterte ploy to please China and divert attention from its own failures to follow up on the 2016 award through cooperation with ASEAN and other neighbors alarmed by China’s moves.

Locsin’s accusation that Malaysia gave support to rebels in Sulu and Mindanao may once, in the early 1970s, been true. But that followed the plan by President Marcos to infiltrate Sabah, which ended in the horrendous cold-blooded killing of young Tausugs from Sulu – the 1968 Jabidah massacre. That led directly to the rise of the Moro National Liberation Front and the military’s destruction of Jolo town in 1974. Malaysia and Indonesia were both involved in talks which eventually led to the latest agreement on a Bangsamoro region.

The Philippines claim is doubly absurd given that its Muslim region has experienced little but strife since independence. Even now, after the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic law to give a high level of autonomy to the Muslim region, the Sulu archipelago, Lanao and Maguindanao continue to see frequent firefights. Much of its once-renowned cultural center Marawi still lies in ruins after a five-month-long battle in 2017. The Philippine military remains more focused on internal security than the defense of its borders. Meanwhile, Sabah, with a mixed ethnic and religious population numbering about the same at the Bangsamoro region, has been peaceful, quite prosperous and a magnet for people from Sulu. It also enjoys a high degree of autonomy from Kuala Lumpur.

Few outside the Philippines will take Locsin seriously. The bigger problem is that with Locsin in charge of its foreign policy, no one will take the Philippines seriously. Philippine politicians will continue to flourish on fantasies drawn from their own ignorance of the history and geography of the region in which they live.

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