Diplomacy not enough in sea row

By Val G. Abelgas

Chinese reclamation project at Mabini Reef.

Chinese reclamation project at Mabini Reef.

The Philippines was both being diplomatic and showing signs of weakness when it said it would not respond to any provocation from China in its widening rift with the Asian superpower over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Instead of aggressively opposing any illegal action of the Chinese as the Vietnamese are doing, it seems the Aquino government would rather offer its other cheek following reports that China is building an artificial island over the Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef) and may also be planning to reclaim land over two other nearby reefs – the Gavin Reef and the Calderon Reef.

“The tack that we have taken is that we do not respond to provocative actions, including military action. We always exhaust the diplomatic channels and legal means in addressing this issue,” Palace deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte said.

That would have been the proper response to a diplomatic dispute, but China has obviously abandoned diplomacy on the issue, having ignored basically all calls by the United States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Australia, and the G-7 leaders from Germany, United Kingdom, European Community, France, Canada, Italy, Japan and the US against use of force and coercion in the East and South China Sea.

It is becoming obvious that China is ready to bring the dispute to a higher level as it shifts to increasingly bolder, assertive and offensive actions in the region. The bullying has intensified, with the Philippines and Vietnam bearing the brunt of the offensive.

Recently, China pulled an oil rig into the Paracels that resulted in a brief skirmish with small Vietnamese vessels, resulting in the sinking of a Vietnamese boat. It also intensified the reclamation of land in the Mabini Reef, forcing the Philippines to file yet another diplomatic protest; and started sending ships with land reclaiming capabilities to Gaven and Calderon Reefs, which like the Mabini Reef are being claimed by the Philippines and are well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

China has been quietly reclaiming Mabini Reef land since 2012 and when confronted by the Philippines about it, the Chinese foreign ministry basically told the Philippines “it’s none of your business.”

“China exercises indisputable sovereignty on the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and the adjacent waters,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said. “Any action taken by China on any island falls within China’s sovereignty and has nothing to do with the Philippines.”

President Aquino later reported that Chinese ships were seen around the Gavin and Calderon Reefs, obviously with the same intent of reclaiming land in the disputed waters.

But the Palace said the Philippines would not follow the response of Vietnam, which sent several small ships to block the oilrig. Although one ship sank in the skirmish with the bigger Chinese vessels, the Vietnamese were able to force the Chinese to pull back the oilrig. More importantly, it showed China and the whole world that it was willing to fight for its territory. In 1994, the Vietnamese fought the Chinese over the Paracels and lost 54 soldiers and the islands, but kept its dignity intact.

On the other hand, beyond saying its military will fight to the last blood, the Philippines has not done much to stop, or even just delay Chinese incursions, or even just to show its resolve to defend its claims.

In the meantime, China will soon be able to build artificial islands in the Spratlys Group, which is dangerously close to Palawan, where the Philippines has offered three bases for use by American troops under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

By all accounts, the Mabini Reef reclamation will house a Chinese naval base that will be double the size of the Americans’ Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean and with provisions for an airstrip, a docking berth, housing facilities for troops, and even a tourist area.

The planned military base would be an important facility with which China hopes to project its military strength in the region. Reports from the South China Morning Post also said the move would also be a prelude to establishing an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, similar to the one it put in place over the East China Sea last year.

“The artificial island at Fiery Cross Reef will be an unreplaceable military base with great strategic significance due to its location and size. Such a base will realize the value of the South China Sea for China and ensure China’s status in South East Asia,” a China expert was quoted as telling the Hongkong-based South China Morning Post.

Obviously, China is in a hurry to become a legitimate world superpower and the most dominant force in Asia. At the current rate China is boosting its defense budget and the Americans reducing its own, Chinese military spending would overtake the US in 20 years. Latest reports from Pentagon showed that Chinese military spending exceeded $145 billion last year as it advanced a program modernizing an arsenal of drones, warships, jets, missiles and cyber weapons.

A report by The Diplomat, on the other hand, quoted the US Defense Department as saying that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force is modernizing at a rate “unprecedented in history.”

“The PLAAF is pursuing modernization on a scale unprecedented in its history and is rapidly closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities including aircraft, command and control, jammers, electronic warfare, and data links,” the Pentagon said in its annual report on China’s military modernization, which was released last week.

At present, China has close to 2,800 military aircrafts. China is also expanding its navy, with the acquisition of one aircraft carrier and the construction of four more in the coming years. It also has 45 frigates, 24 destroyers, 69 submarines and 353 coastal defense crafts. It has the biggest army with more than two million active troops and more than two million more active reserves.

Apparently, diplomacy will not be sufficient to solve the South China Sea crisis. With the help of the US, allies like the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan need to boost their capabilities to defend against coercion and aggression. In the meantime, the US should consider finally signing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to boost its credibility in combatting Chinese aggression in the disputed seas.


3 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Gabriel says:

    Thank you for this article but this will only tell the weakness of our Phil. Government. We need some great assistance from the US. As we our selves is incapable in stopping the Mighty Chinese Navy or Armed Forces at this stage.

    May God Bless us and what we must do is more prayers as the Mighty God is the most powerful force against our enemies. God Bless us. and I do believe this.

  2. roy says:

    How coward is holding the Phil. government? The Vietnamese not scared fighting for what they have. No more spirits Of the katipuneros the old warriors of yesteryears.
    With the Phil. overpopulation still scared to donate a fighting hero for the sake of the motherland.

  3. Mac Flores, Jr. says:

    Based on what I read and observed, ownership of piece of property can be accomplished by physical possession (legal or illegal) and presence of the possessor on the property for a period of time, especially if nobody oppose the claimant.

    Years back in the PHL, someone was ordered to fence illegally a piece of land (an accretion from the original creek) adjacent to my property.

    I discovered that behind the illegal fencing was a big syndicate of land grabbers in Quezon City with strong connection to City Hall.

    After considerable thoughts on pros and cons, and diplomatic approach to stop the fencing, I took the risk of destroying the fence as I covered myself from the rain of stones and rocks thrown at me by the fencers, while waiting for the arrival of the police.

    To cut the story short, the squatters failed in their attempt to grab the piece of land adjacent to my property.

    I took the risk of getting stoned and even threat on myself and my family after diplomacy and warnings to the squatters failed.

    Your next move brave but thinking men of the PHL on China’s miles by miles of daily incursion to PHL territory.

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