All this time, the two polar positions of war or appeasement have been the only options on the China-Spratlys question that the Duterte administration seems capable of processing and presenting to the Filipino people.
As late as March this year — in a speech where he tried to justify the idea of “joint exploration” and “co-ownership” with China of resources in the West Philippine Sea, a plan that concerned observers have described as fundamentally unconstitutional — President Duterte reiterated his oft-repeated line that he would not send Filipino soldiers to confront Chinese intrusions in the area, to avoid the prospect of a “massacre.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping had supposedly warned him that “there would be trouble” if the Philippines began drilling for oil in the Spratly Islands.
Thus, in the face of one Chinese provocation after another, each more outrageous than the last, Malacañang’s default response has been an anemic statement of concern designed more, it appears, to soothe Beijing than to level up with the public at home.
On news that China had violated its own promise to the international community not to militarize the area when it built hangars, control towers and a runway on Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Mr. Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque basically threw up his hands: “I think whether or not we like it, they intended to use them as military bases. So, what do you want us to say?” He would follow that up with an even more staggering statement: “There will come a time when China’s might has ceased, when we will have to thank them for those islands.”
Naturally emboldened, Beijing ramped up its takeover by next landing military planes on Panganiban Reef. Roque’s response? “[The] secretary of foreign affairs has said that we are preparing and exploring the possibility of a diplomatic protest. We’ll leave it at that.” And apparently they did,
because nothing more was heard of the planned diplomatic protest.
Less than a month later came the explosive CNBC report that China has installed antiship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on Panganiban Reef, Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef and Zamora (Subi) Reef. The report came with satellite images, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry subsequently confirmed the news by saying that “the relevant deployment targets no one.” Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano’s response, however, was the height of nonchalance: “We’re verifying the information.”
Vietnam, for one, was having none of that empty, noncommittal stance: It publicly reminded China to “show its responsibility in maintaining peace, stability in the East Sea,” and asked that it withdraw its missiles.
There was no mention or threat of war, but Vietnam’s firm statement, while it may receive only a shrug from Beijing, at the very least brings the issue to the consciousness of the international community. Vietnam’s statement also puts China on notice that it cannot simply get away with its
incessant muscle-flexing and double-talk.
Manila’s dilly-dallying, meanwhile, could only make the likes of Sen. Panfilo Lacson apprehensive: “If up to now, the government still has not confirmed the presence of a foreign country’s missiles in one of our islands, we may have a serious national security problem,” he said in a statement that called for a Senate investigation into the matter.
China is not letting up; it has reportedly landed a plane again in the area, this time on Zamora Reef. Zamora is a mere 12 nautical miles away from Pag-asa Island, which is inhabited by a small Filipino community.
It’s the first confirmed landing of a Chinese military aircraft on the reef, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
It’s time everyone took note that China’s intrusions are getting deeper and deeper into Philippine territory. Why isn’t Malacañang livid at this incessant provocation?
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