Minnow flexes muscle; Obama red-faced; billionaire backing; Australia’s Antarctica claims; Japanese submarines may return to our seas. By Hamish McDonald.

Philippines stands up to might of China

The Sierra Madre, in the South China Sea, at the centre of the standoff between China and the Philippines.
The Sierra Madre, in the South China Sea, at the centre of the standoff between China and the Philippines.

The Philippines is not regarded as one of Asia’s tough guys, but this week it showed two instances of creative tweaking of the region’s rising big power.

For 15 years, relay teams of Filipino marines have manned a World War II navy transport vessel deliberately run aground on the Second Thomas Shoal, asserting sovereignty over this rock outcrop that China also claims under its expansive “nine dash line” around the South China Sea. 

A month ago, Chinese patrol vessels blocked an attempt to resupply the grounded Sierra Madre and relieve its garrison. This week, a small Philippines vessel eluded two large Chinese ships trying to block its path and got into water too shallow for them to follow. It then took off the grateful marines and left the new guard with their supplies, all in front of a media posse.

Then on Monday, a team of British and American lawyers filed a 4000-page submission on Manila’s behalf at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, arguing that the shoal and certain other Chinese-claimed rocks were well inside the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

Heading the team is Washington hot shot Paul Reichler, who made his name in a successful international court case against the United States on behalf of Nicaragua over the Reagan administration’s attempts to overthrow the Sandanista government by force. More recently, he has sued Russia over its 2008 invasion of Georgia. 

China is now trying to dissuade its fellow communists in Vietnam from joining the Philippine legal action.

1 . Obama red-faced over senate block

Hitting the Chinese with both legal barrels is a tactic that Barack Obama might advocate on his trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines towards the end of the month. 

But the former constitutional law professor is a little embarrassed that the US senate has refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for the past 20 years since it came into force.

This is the law that Washington insists the Chinese respect. A bloc of 34 Republican Party senators continues to oppose it, enough to obstruct the necessary two-thirds majority. Asked about this presidential embarrassment, a senior senate staffer pointed out cryptically: “You have to know, some people here think there are black helicopters out there.”

2 . Tycoon Adelson to back a moderate

Political insanity is getting less fashionable, even among Republicans. 

Last weekend saw what became known as the party’s Sheldon Primary. The casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, 80, whose $US39.9 billion fortune makes James Packer look skint, invited the dozen or so Republican hopefuls down to his Venetian casino in Las Vegas to check them out over a long weekend of poker tournaments, Scotch whisky tasting, and golf − all the kind of manly things likely to appeal to right-thinkers. 

As this was ostensibly a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, candidates made sure to make the right noises about supporting Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu and bashing Iran, causes dear to Adelson’s heart (though New Jersey governor Chris Christie blew it by referring to “the occupied territories”). But having wasted $US92 million in 2012, first on Newt Gingrich then on Mitt Romney, Adelson is inclined to support a more middle-of-the-road candidate this time. 

Victor Chaltiel, a director of Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands group told The Washington Post: “He wants someone who has the chance to win the election, who is reasonable in his positions, who has convictions but is not totally crazy.” Strangely, the sanest middle-ground possibility is another member of the Bush family, George W’s brother Jeb, former governor of Florida. Spanish-speaking, keen on education, Bush rates highly in the polls. Though he’s yet to declare a wish to run, Adelson gave Jeb top speaking slot at a dinner held in the hangar for his private aircraft fleet last Sunday. 

3 . Australia’s claims to Antarctica shaky

Manila isn’t the only capital with China looming large on a distant patch. New Zealand sinologist Anne-Marie Brady points out that China now has three bases set up in the Australian Antarctic Territory: all there strictly for scientific research, of course, though activities that look awfully like mineral prospecting have been noticed. 

The 1998 treaty protecting the environment of the Antarctic bans activity relating to mineral resources, though permission for geological surveys gives resource exploration some cover. This ban is up for review in 2048, and Chinese agencies make little secret they want to be ready to move if extraction is given the green light. Next year, China will launch an even more advanced ice vessel than the existing Xue Long (Snow Dragon) and will get an ice-capable long-range aircraft that will connect its bases with the homeland. 

Australia’s four permanently manned bases crouch on the coastline and its only ice-breaker, the Aurora Australis, is 25 years old and nearing the end of its serviceability. The Australian Academy of Science is begging for a new 20-year Antarctic program.

Meanwhile, the Chinese presence now reaches far into the hinterland of the Australian territory, over which Canberra’s sovereignty has limited international recognition. “Being able to be active and present in the territory is a significant means of signalling sovereignty,” Brady tells me. “The dwindling resources of the Australian program in the Antarctic and the pathetic state of the Aurora Australis has really weakened the Australian claims over the territory.”

4 . Japanese subs may return to our seas

Watch Tony Abbott’s visit to Tokyo next week for movement on Japanese technology for Australia’s new class of submarines.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government lifted a longstanding ban on the export of military equipment. The Royal Australian Navy is highly interested in Japan’s newest submarines; the Soryu class are about the same size as the conventional subs with which the RAN wants to replace its present Collins-class submarines.

If the entire Japanese submarine is not copied, the Adelaide-based Australian Submarine Corporation is likely to incorporate the Japanese drive-chain (diesels, generator, batteries, electric motor, air-independent propulsion, etc) into an evolved Collins-class. The Japanese submariners who penetrated Sydney Harbour in 1942 and are now enshrined in Abe’s favourite Valhalla, the Yasukuni Shrine, would be sort of proud.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 5, 2014 as "Philippines stands up to might of China".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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