Speech by Senator Yuen Pau Woo on South China Sea

The Senate

Motion to Urge the Government to Take the Steps Necessary to De-escalate Tensions and Restore Peace and Stability in the South China Sea—Debate Continued

November 24, 2016


The Honourable Senator Yuen Pau Woo :

Honourable senators, I rise to speak on Motion No. 92 concerning the reduction of tensions in the South China Sea.

I had not anticipated that I would deliver my maiden speech so soon after being sworn in as a senator, and I would rather that my premiere had been on a topic other than this one. But I was summoned to the Senate in part because I am alleged to have some knowledge about international affairs and in particular about contemporary Asia and the Canada-Asia relationship. Hence it would be a betrayal of my summons if I did not, as it were, rise to the occasion.

I have read closely the previous statements on this topic by fellow honourable senators, and I listened very carefully to Senator Oh's intervention just now. And I'm struck by Senator Ngo's passion in raising the issue and his sincere effort in trying to reduce tensions in the South China Sea.

I am grateful to Senator Enverga for drawing our attention to the special concerns faced by his native country of the Philippines. Senators Martin, MacDonald and Munson have in turn reminded us of Canada's long-standing commitment to the rule of law in international relations, and Senator Cools, who opposes the motion, has raised some important questions about the substance, the tone and indeed the legitimacy of Motion No. 92.

I am especially appreciative of the Government Representative in the Senate for his review of Canada's contribution to maritime cooperation in the South China Sea and his review of what the government has done so far.

In his speech, Senator Harder also summarized the recent actions of the Government of Canada not just in response to the rising tensions in the South China Sea but also in response to the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the matter brought to its attention by the Government of the Philippines.

I commend to all members a very careful reading of Senator Harder's speech. It consists of 1,104 words. I agree with 1,089 of those words. I disagree with only his last sentence, in which he declares the government's support for the motion.

I draw a very different conclusion from 99 per cent of Senator Harder's remarks, and I believe my conclusion is also one that you can justifiably come to.

Now, while I have expressed my reservations about delivering my maiden speech on this delicate topic, I have no reservations about voicing a position on Motion No. 92 that is contrary to that of the government. For the skeptical public and perhaps some of you in this chamber who define independence narrowly as a test of whether independent senators will always vote with the government, I hope my example puts that question to rest.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

Senator Woo: There is much commonality in the views expressed by previous speakers on this motion, and I count myself in that company. We have a shared desire for reducing tensions in the South China Sea, encouraging cooperation among littoral states, promoting adherence to international law and resolving disputes, and protecting the sensitive marine environment that is the unfortunate arena for the current conflict.

However, I am not persuaded that Motion No. 92 will do any of the above, and more importantly, from the perspective of a chamber that first and foremost represents Canada, I am unconvinced that it addresses Canadian interests in the short term or the long term. There are three principal sets of reasons.

First, as Senator Oh has pointed out, it has been four months since the court of arbitration released its ruling. In that time, there have been dramatic political developments that have already had an impact on the South China Sea. The most immediate is the May 2016 election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines and his subsequent rapprochement with China to the extent of essentially setting aside the arbitration ruling and pursuing instead a bilateral solution to his country's boundary dispute with Beijing. In effect, the country that "won" the ruling has chosen to not push for its implementation and is instead seeking a political resolution to the problem.

As some of you know, President Duterte has gone even further by publicly aligning the Philippines with China as a political ally and threatening to end his country's military alliance with the United States. It would seem that president-elect Trump is not inclined to protest — if we take his statements during the election campaign about disentangling U.S. commitments overseas at face value. At the very least, I think we can say that President Obama's pivot to Asia is over. A new chapter, honourable senators, perhaps a new volume, in the saga of maritime disputes in the South China Sea was opened in 2016, ushered not by a ruling of the international court but by the revenge of geopolitics.

The most immediate result of Manila's volte-face on this issue appears to be a breakthrough on one of the core issues in the arbitration ruling, namely access for Filipino vessels to fish in the waters around Scarborough Shoal. As Senator Oh has pointed out, there are reports that boats from the Philippines have been allowed to cast their nets in those waters for the first time in four years. If this is true, it would suggest that the Chinese are acquiescing to this central finding of the court, even as Beijing continues to vigorously denounce the decision itself.

President Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte confirmed again a few days ago on the margins of the APEC meeting in Peru that Filipino vessels would indeed be allowed to access the waters around Scarborough Shoal. President Duterte went even further two days ago by proclaiming a marine sanctuary in the lagoon within Scarborough Shoal, a site of particular environmental concern given its sensitive ecosystem. So far, the Chinese government has not opposed this unilateral initiative by Manila, which to my mind amounts to a tacit acknowledgment of the Philippine's territorial claim over Scarborough Shoal.

Second, as Senator Cools has pointed out, and now Senator Oh as well, there has been little evidence or context provided in support of the strident language of Motion No. 92, much less an analysis of what is driving the conflict and how Canada can be helpful. This chamber has not had the benefit of a thorough review of boundary conflicts in the South China Sea. I am not just referring to a recitation of the timeline for the current disputes or reproduction of the legal arguments and the arbitration ruling.

It would be naive of us to imagine that the disputes in the South China Sea are purely a matter of international law.

What we are witnessing, honourable senators, is power politics of the highest order at a moment in history when the unipolar dominance of the United States is giving way to a more diffuse global balance of power. China, of course, looms the largest in the so-called power transition that we are witnesses to, and it is in the interest of all states, including Canada, maybe especially Canada, to avoid the Thucydides trap of great power conflict.

International law, for example in form of the court of arbitration's ruling, may well be a way to avoid great power conflict. From a Canadian perspective, that is the best way. But a dogmatic and trenchant insistence on international law could also be the very precipitant of conflict.

I do not believe that Motion No. 92 is helpful in steering us away from great power conflict. On the contrary, it will come across at best as an anachronistic pronouncement that embarrasses this chamber or, worse, one that damages Canada's long-term interest as an informed, credible and engaged player in the region.

This brings me to my third point: This motion does not provide any reflection on what Canada's longer-term interest in the Asia-Pacific is, and it does not add anything, except some sharp language, to actions already taken by the Government of Canada. For example, we have for many years under both Conservative and Liberal governments been seeking entry into the East Asia Summit. This is a regional grouping that includes all East Asian countries, as well as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and India, but not Canada. Likewise, the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus has all of these countries as members, plus Russia, but not Canada. If we are concerned about maritime security and building stronger political and economic ties with Asian countries, we need to be part of these kinds of regional fora. But we will do ourselves no favours by passing a motion that will come across in Asia, including by claimants in Southeast Asia, as gratuitous.

In any case, the motion at best repeats a number of points that the government has already made and I would submit has made more fulsomely, for that matter, in its official statements. Minister Dion's statement on July 21, for example, calls for the peaceful management and resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, and the need for parties to refrain from land reclamation, militarization and other actions that can undermine regional security and stability.

Some of you will be wondering: "If this rookie senator is right that the motion is so damaging to Canadian interests in Asia, why is the government supporting it?" I cannot speak for the government, but I can surmise that it has to do with the short-term political cost of opposing the motion. Insofar as a vote against the motion boils down to being soft on China and against peace and security in the South China Sea, it is a political loser, big time, which is precisely why, honourable senators, as a senator who feels unencumbered by political and partisan calculation, I'm looking at the bigger picture, taking the longer view and choosing, in this case, the less popular or, should I say, less populist position.

Finally, I'm also concerned about the framing, language and tone of this motion. If Canada's official position is to not take sides on the boundary dispute, again as Senator Oh has reminded us of, why would we single out one of the claimants for special mention? If militarization of the South China Sea is deemed to exacerbate tensions, does it make sense to deem one party as hostile when other claimants and non-claimants are also stepping up their military presence in the area?

Is the point of a motion on the South China Sea to feel virtuous about having made a motion, or is it to make a constructive contribution to peace and security in the region, and to serve Canadian interests? If we are the chamber of sober second thought, surely we should offer our second thoughts with sober words.

Let me sum up by reiterating my respect for Senator Ngo and other honourable senators who spoke in favour of the motion, and let me again state that we share a common view about the need to reduce tensions in the South China Sea and the importance of international law in resolving disputes. But, honourable senators, Motion No. 92 will not serve those purposes and could in fact do great harm to Canadian interests in the region. I hope you will join me in opposing the motion.