MANILA - Amid intensifying territorial disputes with China and new uncertainty over the US's military commitment to the region, the Philippines strategic headaches have been further complicated by the unfolding crisis in Sabah, Malaysia.
Malaysian armed forces are now engaged in a full-scale mopping up operation against followers of the Philippines-based Sulu Sultanate, which launched a rag-tag occupation of a remote area of the Malaysian state to assert Sultan Jamalul Kiram's historical claims to the territory. After a long stand-off, Malaysian forces assaulted and killed several members of Kiram's non-state Royal Security Forces (RSF).
The violence now threatens to spiral with an estimated 800,000 Filipinos among Sabah's 3.2 million population and signs of insurgent-style attacks outside of the initial occupation area. The crisis has ignited popular calls for a re-assertion of Philippine historical claims to Sabah, an oil-rich, ethnically diverse state on the island of Borneo that historically has had an uneasy relationship with the Malaysian federal government in Kuala Lumpur.
Domestic politics have complicated the crisis. Both Malaysia and the Philippines are in crucial election cycles, with Philippine President Benigno Aquino facing a de facto referendum on his rule in upcoming by-elections. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is fighting to thwart the political opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim from making electoral gains at polls that must be called before June.
Neither national leader can afford to yield the nationalistic high ground or absorb allegations of being soft on security in relation to Sabah by their respective oppositions ahead of the upcoming elections. At the same time, the Sabah crisis could have long-term strategic implications for both countries if myopically handled for short-term political gains.
For Aquino, the crisis represents a significant strategic diversion at a time his government bids to shore up its external security capabilities - including through strengthening ties with allies like the US, Japan and Australia - vis-a-vis China's rising assertiveness in the South China Sea. For Najib, the spike in instability has raised uncomfortable new questions about central sovereignty over outlying areas and the hitherto unexpected potential for a prolonged and debilitating armed ethnic conflict.
Given the importance of bilateral economic ties with China, the Philippines has faced a stark diplomatic choice between acquiescence and confrontation. Aquino has so far opted for a mixture of appeasement and hedging with China aimed at securing a multilateral resolution of the territorial disputes.
Yet two years of intensive talks and strategic jostling at sea have done little to halt China's perceived encroachment into the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China has been able to leverage its influence on Cambodia, last year's chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to frustrate any unified multilateral attempts to build consensus around a binding dispute settlement mechanism.
That has left the Philippines to seek external help and military hardware to shore up its ''minimum deterrence capability''. Manila followed up with an audacious bid to take China to the International Tribunal on Law of the Seas (ITLOS) to not only settle the territorial disputes but also to highlight China's expansive nine-dash-line map, which outlines Beijing's claim to practically all features in the South China Sea.
China has responded by rejecting any attempt at third-party arbitration and taking the unprecedented decision to dispatch an armada of maritime surveillance ships and a Haijian B-7103 helicopter to conduct supposed patrol and observation missions within China's claimed territories. China has also dispatched more naval assets to consolidate its claims, including over the Scarborough Shoal, the site of a bitter stand-off between Filipino and Chinese ships in mid-2012.
Adding to Manila's strategic anxieties, a cabinet reshuffle in the US has sent mixed signals about America's military commitment to the region. New Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have both publicly expressed their hopes for a more amicable strategic relationship with China.
"I'm not convinced that increased military ramp-up [in the Asia-Pacific] is critical yet," Kerry argued in his confirmation hearing, signaling a potential new foreign policy direction from his predecessor Hillary Clinton's 'pivot'. ''That's something I'd want to look at very carefully."
At the same time, Washington and Manila held joint military exercises in the guise of humanitarian and disaster relief training in the Philippine province of Negros Oriental, situated near some of the contested maritime areas, earlier this month. Those exercises will be followed in April by the 9th annual ''Balikatan'' joint military exercises which are scheduled to bring together more than 8,000 Filipino and American soldiers.
Game of thrones
While Manila recognizes that it cannot contain China's territorial assertiveness, Aquino and his deputies do maintain hopes that fellow ASEAN members, especially original and influential states such as Malaysia, will help to diplomatically resolve the disputes through multilateral mechanisms.
Judging by the behavior and pronouncements of Filipino officials during the Sabah crisis, Manila is clearly trying to downplay the conflict and avoid any deterioration in bilateral ties with neighboring Malaysia. Some local commentators have even accused the Aquino administration of speaking on Malaysia's behalf while ignoring the supposedly legitimate territorial claims raised by the Sulu Sultanate.
Sultan Kiram has repeatedly sought Manila's support for, among other things, an official appeal to international arbitration to reclaim Sabah for the Philippines, similar to the recent submission it made to the ITLOS against China. Instead, in the initial days of the crisis, the government threatened Kiram and his followers with prosecution, technically over violating an election period ban on bearing arms.
Manila's behavior has also been influenced by Aquino's fears that the Sabah crisis could torpedo ongoing efforts to implement the Framework Peace Agreement (FPA) reached last year between his government and the insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The deal, which promises to end decades of debilitating armed conflict on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, was brokered by Malaysia. Najib reportedly played a direct role in the diplomacy.
Rival Philippine rebel groups, including the MILF's mother organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), are now aiming to use the Sabah crisis to scupper the FPA. Former MNLF leader Nur Misurari has publicly backed Kiram's stance on Sabah, while arguing that the FPA is invalid unless the government also honors its earlier agreements with the MNLF on the establishment of an ethnic Moro sub-state. He has also accused Malaysia of interfering in Mindanao's internal affairs in order to divert attention from boiling ethnic tensions in Sabah.
With some estimates putting the total number of Filipinos in Malaysia as high as 1.5 million, the Aquino administration has expressed diplomatic concerns about the well-being of its nationals amid the unfolding crisis. There are indications that Kuala Lumpur could use the crisis as pretext to deport or further marginalize Filipinos in Malaysia. Approximately 5,000 Filipinos have so far fled the armed crackdown, according to the Philippine National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
Aquino's broader geopolitical need to preserve stable bilateral ties with Malaysia has influenced his so far soft approach to the Sabah crisis. Critics have accused Aquino of secretly dropping the Philippines' long-standing claim to Sabah - although constitutionally the executive has no power to permanently drop territorial claims without the approval of the legislature and the Supreme Court - to win Malaysia's support for the FPA.
Some Philippines-based commentators and former diplomats have argued that Malaysia is loathe to wade into the South China Sea disputes because of its own strong relations with Beijing. Others have suggested that Kuala Lumpur, also a claimant in the South China Sea, has indeed advocated for a more a unified ASEAN voice to deal with "acts that contravene the international law on EEZ and continental shelves''.
Manila thus still clearly believes that ASEAN - especially core members such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore - will under Brunei's chairmanship this year use their collective weight to cajole China into an amicable solution to the intensifying territorial disputes. Until that happens, it will be unclear whether Aquino's approach to the Sabah crisis has forwarded the Philippines' interests in both Sabah and the South China Sea.
Richard Javad Heydarian
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