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Sunday, February 13, 2011

China, US making South China Sea a nuclear zone

BEIJING — The whistleblower website WikiLeaks recently released a confidential memo sent by the US Embassy in London in November 2007 about a possible attempt to sell “5-6 uranium ‘bricks’ [found at the site] of an underwater wreck" by divers in the Philippines who claimed the nuclear materials “formerly belonged to the US."

The 1987 Philippine Constitution prohibits nuclear weapons within the national territory.

“We can only think of a few American entities that are nuclear-capable," said Renato Reyes of the leftist group Bayan. “Was there a US ship that sank, and is this what’s being described as the underwater wreck? Was this ship nuclear-powered?"

According to Roland G. Simbulan, a long-standing advocate of nuclear disarmament: “Given the nuclear-free policy laid down by the Philippine Constitution, even transient visits by nuclear-armed vessels or aircraft are prohibited. The government may not store or allow anyone to store nuclear weapons inside the national territory, and nuclear-armed aircraft and vessels may not be allowed to enter, according to that constitutional policy."

The problem is that under the US-RP Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows US military forces to enter the country supposedly for specific non-combat activities for a limited period, Philippine authorities are not allowed to inspect America’s military vessels.

This is aggravated by the US’s standard policy on these matters, which is to neither confirm nor deny whether its visiting military vessels and aircraft are nuclear-armed or not.

Nukes a matter between US and PHL only?

The November 2007 US embassy memo was not immediately relayed to the Philippine government’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and the reported retrieval of “5-6 uranium bricks" from an underwater wreck is not known to have been reported by the media until now.

If true, the discovery of missing uranium in unnamed Philippine waters points to a glaring lack of capacity or determination, or both, by Philippine authorities to keep track of any nuclear weapons and fissionable material moving through its national territory.

GMANews.TV asked Ambassador Sergio Duarte, UN High Commissioner for Disarmament Affairs, whether the Philippines had ever asked his office to help monitor the movement of nuclear weapons by foreign forces going in and out of its territory.

“This is a question that falls under the bilateral jurisdiction of both countries. It’s both countries concerned that have to decide it, how they manage that, how they monitor that," Duarte replied.

Duarte was interviewed last January 20 on the sidelines of a workshop on disarmament issues in the Asia-Pacific region co-sponsored by the United Nations and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“There was never a request—to my office at least, or to the IAEA that I know, and I don’t think there has been, ever—a request for these international organizations to monitor that kind of situation… So this is basically a bilateral question that has to be solved bilaterally," the UN official added.

(The International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA is tasked to monitor member-states’ compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.)

The Southeast Asia nuclear weapons free zone

The prohibition of nuclear weapons in Philippine territory is, in fact, not only mandated by the 1987 Constitution but by the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ), forged in Bangkok in 1995 by 10 Southeast Asian member-states: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The SEANWFZ or Bangkok Treaty of 1995, which took effect in 1997, commits its members to the following (Article 3):
1.Anywhere inside or outside the nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ), not to develop, manufacture, acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons; not to station or transport nuclear weapons; and not to use or test nuclear weapons.

2.In each member’s territory, not to allow any other state to develop, manufacture, acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons, nor to station nuclear weapons, nor to test or use nuclear weapons.

In short, the Bangkok Treaty binds all 10 member-states not to allow nuclear weapons—whether self-acquired or held by any other state—within their combined territory.

The first point does not offer any great difficulty in implementation, since no ASEAN state anyway has been known to take serious steps in developing its own nuclear weapons capability.

Implementing the second point is a hundred-fold more problematic, however, since it touches two raw nerves that are tightly intertwined.

First, the Bangkok Treaty defines its member-states’ territories to include adjacent continental shelves and exclusive economic zones. This reopens disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) that involve not just the ASEAN states among themselves, but China, which has been claiming much of the SCS as part of its territory.

Since China has rapidly increased its military strength in the past decade, its naval fleets have been projecting Chinese armed might—and presumably, its nuclear capabilities—beyond the internationally-recognized Chinese coastline, into the high seas beyond.

This problem is further aggravated in the case of the Philippines, where the most basic questions about the area of Philippine jurisdiction remain ambiguous. As discussed in his recent book, veteran diplomat Rodolfo Severino said, “Philippine law enforcement agencies have not been sure of what to allow and what to prohibit, particularly by way of sea passage, overflight, fishing activities, and environmental protection." (See: Veteran diplomat asks: Where in the world is the Philippines?)

Second, the Bangkok Treaty appears to have opened another controversy: whether it may impose strict monitoring of possible transit or underwater stationing of nuclear weapons along the international sea lanes and possible chokepoints within the South China Sea.

Article 7 of the treaty says that each signatory state may decide for itself, “on being notified," how to deal with possibly nuclear-armed vessels and aircraft that visit its ports and airfields, that navigate through its waters or fly over its airspace.

But as Mark Valencia of Australia’s Nautilus Institute points out, what if the nuclear-weapon state operating the aircraft or naval vessel does not notify the corresponding ASEAN state?

And then there is the US’s famous position of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons on its vessels.

Nuclear powers snubbing Southeast Asian NWFZ?

Theoretically, there is a solution to this: The Bangkok Treaty includes a legally-binding protocol for China, France, Russia, UK, and the US—the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the NPT—to sign and ratify in recognition of the NWFZ and compliance with its provisions that apply to nuclear-weapons states.

But none of the five powers have signed the protocol thus far, due to worries that the restrictions imposed by the NWFZ will hamper “free navigation" by their navies through the SCS’s strategic sea lanes.

China, in particular, supported the Bangkok Treaty but hedged on signing its attached protocol due to unresolved questions relating to disputed territorial claims with ASEAN states in the South China Sea.

Right after the treaty was forged, a Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that in principle China supports the establishment of a nuclear-free area, but “whether the geographical area of this nuclear-free area includes the continental shelf or exclusive economic zones, China and other countries have their own positions."

Among the nuclear powers, however, only China has continued to push for the Southeast Asian NWFZ and expressed willingness to sign its protocol once the questions are resolved.

Interviewed by GMANews.TV on the sidelines of the Beijing workshop on disarmament, MFA Department of Disarmament Director-General Cheng Jingye assured journalists that China is moving steadily towards signing the Bangkok Treaty protocol, the first of the five nuclear powers to do so if ever.

“We have actually finished the negotiations with the ASEAN countries [regards the treaty on the ASEAN nuclear weapons-free zone]… Of course I understand that there are still some problems or questions remaining between ASEAN countries and the other nuclear-weapons states. We have made it clear that once we finish these negotiations, once it’s ready, we are going to be the first to sign it," Cheng said.

Yin and yang of Chinese policy

Cheng seems to represent the mold of a younger generation of Chinese diplomats who are adept at blending yin and yang in the diplomatic arena: combining a firm—even fierce—assertion of China’s sovereign rights that will not relent until everyone agrees, on one hand, and on the other, the utmost delicacy of a gracious host who wants nothing more but for all states to be reassured of China’s peaceful designs.

Indeed, China's officials and diplomats have a lot of explaining to do nowadays.

The major nuclear powers, as well as other states in Asia-Pacific, have expressed concern about China’s outward military strategy in the past decade. A military analyst at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College described this strategy as “the string of pearls"—the idea of China projecting its political influence, backed by military presence, through the island chains of Northeast Asia, Taiwan in the center, and Southeast Asia to the south, and even beyond these, to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf.

But along with China’s rapid military growth, analysts including Joshua Kurlantzick in his 2007 book How China's Soft Power is Transforming the World, have also noted in recent years an equally strategic Chinese “charm offensive" to reassure other Asians, the US and other Western powers, and the rest of the world that China is a benign power.

Indeed, the very fact that China has co-organized and funded the January 20-21 workshop on disarmament—the very first of its kind in the region, according to the UN Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament in the Asia-Pacific, and with a very substantial media delegation at that—indicates the full-spectrum efforts of this rising power at diplomacy and media projection.

Asked to confirm widespread reports by Western analysts that China is increasing its nuclear arsenal, which ASEAN states fear may find their way into the South China Sea, Cheng reiterated his government’s adherence to its treaty obligations and unilateral commitments that restrict its use of nuclear weapons.

“As I said, we pursue a policy of no-first-use and non-use against non-nuclear weapons states. So the objective of that policy determines that China will not have a big arsenal, because it’s only for self-defense," Cheng said.

“‘Big’ means thousands. You’ve heard the discussions about the US arsenal. They have 70,000 or 50,000. That’s for seeking supremacy. We have no such intention or idea. [What we have] is only for [self-defense]: if we are attacked by nuclear weapon states, then we need [our own weapons] for counter-attack. So there’s no need for such a big arsenal. I don’t see any rationale behind it," he added.

To be sure, China cannot compete with the major nuclear powers in a warhead-to-warhead conflict. Its nuclear strength is estimated at the low hundreds—from 200 to 400 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, while the nuclear strength of the US are estimated at 2,500 active warheads (out of 9,600 total) and Russia at some 4,600 active warheads (out of 12,000 total).

Despite this relatively low nuclear profile, however, China does not fail to announce to the world that it is fast catching up with the other nuclear powers in missile delivery systems, in conventional armaments, in cyber-warfare, and even in orbital space technology that has military value.

All these threaten US supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region, and in recent years there has been angry strutting on both sides in three flashpoint areas: on the Korean peninsula, in the Taiwan straits, and in the South China Sea.

The long-simmering standoffs on the Korean peninsula and in the Taiwan straits have been well-analyzed and well-reported. In recent years, too, the South China Sea skirmishes have started to catch international attention. (See: The South China Sea: Troubled Waters)

Yet it surprises no one that the US and China, who see themselves as each other’s principal adversary in the long term, are hard at work to establish a short to medium-term “strategic partnership," and avoid rocking the boat in the volatile areas of Asia.

Cheng, who heads the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of Disarmament, is thus best understood as speaking from a sincere and non-confrontational tone when he talks about US military presence in Southeast Asia, whether nuclear or conventional.

Asked about how China would react if it signed the Bangkok protocol and yet another nuclear power like the US continued to ply through the disputed South China Sea territories, Cheng replied: “The US presence in this part of the world is a fact, and we recognize that. We respect bilateral military relations with countries in this area. And we also welcome the constructive and positive role played by the US."

"Under the existing circumstances of increasing interdependence, I think it’s important to seek cooperative security instead of military-aligned security… We think it’s much better [cooperative security that allows for a US role], in the better interest of the countries in this area," he added.

China-ASEAN diplomacy

China's efforts to combine its persistent territorial claims in the South China Sea and its diplomatic initiatives directed at the ASEAN can also be read in this same light, that of avoiding armed conflict with the US and other Asia-Pacific states so it could build its network of "strategic partnerships."

China previously rejected a formal regional code of conduct for resolving the SCS conflict drafted by the Philippines and Vietnam in 1999. But now it is “open to different formulas and initiatives in preserving peace, prosperity and stability in this region," Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Liu Jianchai said last October. (See: RP wants code of conduct in South China Sea amid disputes)

Despite a heated exchange of words between US officials led by State Secretary Hillary Clinton and top Chinese officials in mid-2010 on the issue of disputes in the South China Sea, China has exerted efforts to keep its diplomatic initiatives on an even keel.

The Chinese military said on July 31, for example, that while China had "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea, it also assured other countries that it will, "in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of the passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries."

In late December 2010, China also hosted a three-day meeting with ASEAN member states in Kunming to continue efforts in smoothing out the kinks towards formulating a more binding regional code of conduct that will provide a framework for the peaceful resolution of SCS territorial disputes. Auspiciously, the meeting also kicked off the ASEAN-China Friendship and Exchange Year. (See: DFA: ASEAN, China kick off friendship year)

Just the same, China has clearly expressed that the South China Sea region is among its "core national interest," which puts the region on the same level as Taiwan and Tibet. The US, on the other hand, has also said in no uncertain terms that the South China Sea must be kept free for international navigation.

With both powers in possession of nuclear weapons, that is a dangerous mix indeed.— HS, GMA News
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The South China Sea: Troubled Waters

China warns US not to "internationalize" South China Sea issue

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