U.S. Congressman Takes Provocative Flight Over Disputed Spratlys

6 MINS READDec 11, 1998 | 06:00 GMT
A U.S. Congressman was flown in a Philippine military aircraft over the disputed Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands on December 10, where he observed several Chinese warships in the area. Coming right before the ASEAN summit, this will, once again, raise tensions between the Philippines and China, as well as between China and the U.S. While the reasons behind the flight stem from both U.S. and Philippine domestic and foreign policy debates, the outcome is likely to be a disruption of the ASEAN summit. The Philippines has vowed to bring up the issue of Chinese aggressiveness at each level of the summit meetings, and the increased attention to this issue brought on by the U.S. visit to the Philippines will likely overshadow the important economic cooperation talks scheduled for the summit.
On December 10, U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R, CA) was flown in a Philippine military aircraft over the Chinese installation on Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. This latest twist in the month-long dispute between Manila and Beijing over the construction on Mischief Reef (STRATFOR Asia Intelligence Update, Volume 1, No. 27, November 10, 1998) threatens to once again disrupt a multilateral Asian meeting, this time the ASEAN meeting in Hanoi next week, where China has been invited to sit as an observer. But more intriguing are the questions the flight raises about U.S. foreign policy toward China and Asia as a whole. Rohrabacher was in the Philippines to gather information for the U.S. Congress on the issues surrounding the multiple claims to the Spratly Islands. He arrived earlier in the week from Taiwan, where he was observing the recent elections. Rohrabacher's request to visit Mischief Reef was not immediately approved by the Philippine government. The chairman of the Philippine Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, Rodolfo Biazon, and Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado, both warned that approval of the flight would affect already-strained China-Philippines relations. Biazon also warned that the flight would interfere with the Philippine Senate debate over the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S. However, after Rohrabacher met with Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon, the flight was finally approved. Accompanied by several military and government officials including Philippine House Defense Committee chairman Roilo Golez, Rohrabacher was flown over the Chinese construction site on Mischief Reef, where he says he saw Chinese warships. Rohrabacher said, "The Chinese government has sent three warships to the Mischief Reef. This is a clear act of intimidation." Rohrabacher promised to raise the issue with the U.S. Congress upon his return to the U.S., saying, "We can't ignore this bullying by the Communist Chinese in the Spratlys. This is intolerable." Along with the presence of Chinese warships, the flight also revealed that the structures built by the Chinese now have satellite dishes. Rohrabacher is a senior member of the House International Relations Committee and a member of both the International Economic Policy & Trade (IEP&T) and Asia and Pacific subcommittees. He has a long history of opposing U.S. economic relations with China and is a leader of the yearly effort to block Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status for China. Before serving in the House, he was a special assistant and senior speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. He has been outspoken in supporting the role of defense in U.S. foreign policy and strongly opposes U.S. involvement with communist nations like China and Vietnam. There are several possible consequences of this flight. Within the Philippines, it may affect the debate in the Philippines Senate over the revised Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S. Also, coming just before the ASEAN summit, the flight may aid the Philippines in convincing ASEAN to discuss China's latest moves in the Spratlys. The Philippines has already promised to raise the issue at each level of the ASEAN summit, guaranteeing that the issue will, at least in part, interfere with the planned agenda. By stirring renewed interest in this dispute, the Philippines may succeed in driving a wedge between China and the ASEAN nations. The flight will also affect Philippines-China and U.S.-China relations. Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Guan Dengming responded to the flight by saying, "Beijing has always been against the presence of a third party because it will create more problems." The Philippines' relationship with China has been strained for the past month over the Chinese construction, the presence of Chinese Navy vessels in the Spratlys, and the arrest by the Philippines of 20 Chinese fishermen (STRATFOR Asia Intelligence Update, Volume 1, No. 44, December 4, 1998). The U.S. has also made other moves recently that have strained ties with China. In November, President Bill Clinton met with the Dalai Lama and U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson visited Taiwan (STRATFOR Asia Intelligence Update, Volume 1, No. 29, November 12, 1998). Now that a senior U.S. politician has flown in a Philippine military aircraft over an island China claims is within its territory, the question is, what interest is served by instigating the Chinese with this flight? Knowing Rohrabacher's background, it is possible that his comments and desire to over-fly the disputed reef were self-motivated. He has been a firebrand against China for some time, whereas the official U.S. policy on the Spratlys is one of neutrality. However, whether self-motivated or not, Rohrabacher had to secure high-level clearance in order to convince the Philippine Foreign Secretary to approve the flight. If such backing came from the White House, it may be an attempt by the U.S. administration to convince ASEAN and the rest of Asia that a stronger U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia is necessary to counter the Chinese threat. However, there is another interesting possibility, namely, that this may be a partisan Republican initiative designed to serve as a counterpoint to the Democratic administration's policy toward Asia. With the Republicans still in control of the Congress and the White House distracted by the impeachment hearings, the Republicans may have decided that this is the perfect opportunity to take a bold step in foreign policy. The run-up to the 2000 presidential campaign is now under way. A distracted White House gives the Republicans an opportunity to shape the issues that will dominate the forthcoming campaign. Rohrabacher has said, "I don't think that the American people like it when the people who are committed to democracy are bullied by some dictator next door." This stands in stark contrast to the pro-China stance of presumed presidential contender Al Gore. With politicians in the Philippines and U.S. both engaged in a diplomatic bashing of China, the ASEAN summit is about to begin. It is clear that the Philippines is not going to back down from its strong anti-China position any time soon. China's relationship with ASEAN, only recently forged, will face a serious challenge from this Philippine onslaught. It is likely that once again, as with the APEC meeting in November, non-economic issues will dominate the scene, distracting from the intended focus of the meetings and further prolonging Asia's financial crisis.

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