Two incidents have focused attention on our national sovereignty, how we defend it, and actually, how little we can do in the face of another country’s armed might or cluelessness.
We’re talking about China, of course, and its assertion of sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal, which lies off the province of Zambales in the West Philippine Sea (otherwise known as the South China Sea). President Aquino has asserted Philippine sovereignty over the disputed area, and said he hoped for a “peaceful resolution” of the issue. The standoff took place when eight Chinese fishing vessels were blocked by two Philippine Navy ships which would have detained the crews of the vessels had not two other Chinese surveillance craft prevented them from doing so.
The other incident has to do with the planned launch of a rocket by North Korea in the course of which a booster, approximately the size of a refrigerator, would have fallen into Philippine territory. Latest news is that the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea has postponed the rocket launch in view of unfavorable weather conditions. But it still begs the question: What could we have done if indeed a piece of hardware had fallen into the Philippines? True, projections put the area in which the bit of metal would have fallen as firmly within open water. But what if an errant wind or failed calculation nudged the “refrigerator-size” remnant over occupied land and ended up flattening, say, the house of a law-abiding citizen?
Even now, the North Korean launch has caused inconvenience for hundreds of Filipino fisherfolk, who have been warned against venturing out to sea during the few days the rocket is believed to be let loose, and hundreds more passengers of local and international airlines, whose flights were cancelled, rerouted or delayed to avoid the errant rocket.
Who pays for the lost income and opportunity and for the inconvenience? Is Kim Jong-un, recently elevated to the top political post in Pyongyang, ready to write a check to compensate victims?
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Not hardly likely.
As P-Noy wryly remarked when asked about the rocket launch: “We have tried all diplomatic channels to convince North Korea not to proceed with the launch, but their government’s usual reaction is no reaction, in other words, ‘deadma.’”
(“Deadma” is slang English translation for the Tagalog term “patay malisya,” meaning refusing to hear [or acknowledge] any malice or double entendre in a statement.)
There is more, of course, in this rocket launch than just sending a missile into space, ostensibly to place an observation satellite in orbit. South Korea views the launch as a “hostile act,” given the enmity between the two countries. Japan, also in the path of the errant rocket, has threatened hostile action, saying it will shoot down the Unha-3 rocket if it should stray into their airspace. And since both South Korea and Japan have alliances with the United States, it’s not farfetched to assume that the latter will be drawn into any resulting conflict.
Unlike Japan, though, the Philippines, say our officials, has no capability to stop the rocket or divert any falling debris. Which is why they have been limited to mapping out areas at risk and warning off civilians from these areas. It’s a most sobering reminder of our puny defenses and lack of power.
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That may be the reason China feels free to test our resolve again and again in the contested territory occupied by the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal.
Our President is all bluster and bluff when discussing reported incursions of Chinese vessels, especially those belonging to the Chinese navy. But after making the necessary noises, he usually steps back, calling for a diplomatic solution and more talks between our foreign affairs department and theirs. Of course, nobody wants war, or an armed confrontation, to erupt when peaceful solutions exist.
And yet the Philippines, precisely because it is neither as rich nor as mighty as China should speak up whenever and wherever its sovereignty is threatened or ignored. If we allow the slightest violation to go unprotected or unpunished, then we risk even more incursions, and even more claims to what is rightfully ours.
At a lunch with some Chinese diplomats, one of them asked: “How can we build China-Philippine relations beyond the Spratlys?” My reply was that China should explore more “people-to-people” exchanges, building goodwill and relations among Chinese and Filipino students, bureaucrats, journalists, professionals and others, so that our links go beyond the question of territoriality to shared values and aspirations.
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China may indeed be the emerging superpower in our part of the world, dominating discourses on trade, technology and arms. But if it wants to “win friends and influence people” among its neighbors, China needs to realize that it needs to change its image from a domineering bully asserting its rights over disputed islands and waters. Instead it should show itself a willing ally sharing in its neighbors’ plans for regional development and crafting visions for a shared future.
There are many negative images to alter and biases to overcome before the China “brand” becomes more acceptable to governments and people, including Filipinos who have been embroiled for decades in an anticommunist struggle. The ties between our home-grown revolutionaries and the politburo in Beijing may only be mythical by now, but myths die hard. And it’s difficult to make friends when the only overtures we experience are threatening naval incursions and poaching vessels.