ON DISTANT SHORE
By Val G. Abelgas
China has been bullying the Philippines over their dispute on some islets and reefs in the West Philippine Sea for decades now, and it is obvious the country’s leaders have not figured out how to stop the bullying. The Chinese have in the past few weeks intensified its bullying, and it seems our leaders are hoping strong words would scare them away, or worse, they are hoping the country would outgrow the bullying just as a scared kid would. And lick the wounds later.
Unfortunately, what’s at stake here is not just wounded pride but the very future and security of the country. The disputed islands are less than 200 miles away from the country’s shores and having a hostile and reckless next-door neighbor would definitely pose a very serious threat to the Philippines’ security.
By allowing the Chinese to occupy the islets and reefs that are “rightfully ours,” as President Aquino described them in his State-of-the-Nation Address, the country is virtually surrendering its sovereignty, thereby slowly losing its rights over vast oil and gas deposits and the rich fishing grounds in the area. Once the Chinese have succeeded in their evil desires in the West Philippine Sea, what’s to stop them from claiming and taking Palawan, too, or perhaps the entire Philippines?
There is no doubt that the Chinese are ready to use force to push their invalid claim over the disputed islands, because there is no other way they can legally occupy them. The Chinese know they cannot win a case before an international court because those islands are within the country’s 200-mile economic zone and well within the Philippines’ jurisdiction under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). That’s why they refuse to bring the case for arbitration before any international body.
The Chinese used force twice to settle disputes with former ally Vietnam over the Paracel Islands, killing scores of Vietnamese soldiers in the process. In 1974, Chinese troops killed 74 Vietnamese military personnel during an armed conflict that resulted in China occupying the Paracels. In 1988, the Chinese gained control of the Johnson Reef in the Spratlys Islands Group after a naval battle that resulted in the death of 70 Vietnamese soldiers. At least the Vietnamese can claim with pride that they stood up to a bully.
In 1995, China built structures in the Mischief Reef, which is well within the Philippines’ 200-mile economic zone, but apparently the country’s leaders let it go. There was peace and quiet for sometime until March 2011 when Chinese vessels harassed a Philippine oil exploration ship in the Reed Bank, which was well within Philippine territorial waters. The Philippines also protested the firing of warning shots at Filipino fishermen and the laying of buoys by the Chinese in Philippine-claimed islets.
But the Chinese ignored the protests and in April this year, sent frigates to stop a Philippine Coast Guard vessel from arresting Chinese poachers and seizing their illegal catch near the Scarborough Shoal. Since then, the Chinese have repeatedly provoked the Philippines by sending Chinese battleships and providing naval escorts to fleets of Chinese fishermen illegally hauling protected corals and sea turtles.
These provocations were capped with a declaration by the Chinese that it is claiming a small island in the Kalayaan Group, renaming it into Sansha City, and that it would build a military garrison on the island. The intent was, of course, to establish physical and military presence in the disputed territories to further boost its claim.
Amid all these provocations, all that the Philippine leaders could do was lodged protests that are blatantly ignored by the Chinese and unheeded by the UN. The Philippines did not send even a token opposition to the latest provocations, as if signaling surrender to the Chinese.
Even in the diplomatic front where it is expected to show more aggression, the Philippines meekly surrendered to Chinese bullying in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While Foreign Secretary uttered strong words by protesting China’s “duplicity and intimidation,” the country has not even made a move to bring the case before the United Nations. After threatening for months to bring the dispute to international courts, not a single case has been filed.
By their inaction, Philippine leaders are slowly losing its valid claim by default.
Despite being the closest to the disputed islands, the Philippines occupies only nine islets in the Spratlys Group, with military presence and civilian population on Pag-asa island, the second largest in the group.
China occupies only seven in the Spratlys, but occupies all of the Paracels Group. Vietnam occupies 20 islets in the Spratlys, the most by the claimants. Taiwan occupies Taiping, the largest island in the Spratlys, and has a military garrison and an airstrip on the island. It said it would deploy long-range artillery in its garrison. Malaysia occupies three islands in the Spratlys, while Brunei does not occupy any island.
The country cannot afford to lose its claims over these island groups. They are simply too close to the country and can pose a serious security threat if occupied by hostile countries. Neither can the Philippines afford to lose access to the rich oil and gas reserves and the vast fishing grounds in the area.
The country has to have a firm short-term and long-term plan to assert its claim. The bullied has at least four options – stand aside, stand his ground, call his bigger brother to protect him against the bully, or bargain with the bully. Which one will it be?