Puff, the frantic dragon
President Benigno Aquino III will bring up China’s massive reclamation works at the 26th Asean summit in Kuala Lumpur next week—a move well-advised because it is both wise and strategic.
It opens up yet another battlefront where we can engage the Chinese behemoth in the contest over the West Philippine Sea, namely, the issue of environmental protection caused by China’s destruction of coral reefs and harvest of endangered species. It mobilizes an entirely new alliance of green activists to find common cause with the Philippines. It dares the erstwhile fence-sitters to step down and forward on one of the most compelling causes of the 21st century: the preservation of our planet’s fragile ecosystems.
For a long time, the Philippines was virtually alone in parrying China’s incursions in the disputed waters; the rest of the world casually looked the other way lest they displease the economic and political giant that has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea, riding roughshod over the exclusive economic zones of all the coastal states along the way. China has long ignored the international rules laid down in treaties that it has signed, and “[has] made the law its perch and not its terror.” But today our Department of Foreign Affairs is vigilant and ready to protest each incursion with timely and categorical notes verbale.
Again, for a long time, China pooh-poohed these protests and dared us to back them with military threats. But not anymore. The Philippines has filed suit at an international arbitral tribunal at The Hague, and has become the poster boy for small countries standing up to regional bullies. While these states still prefer to cheer from the sidelines and leave the actual jousting to us, it is still a world away from those lonely times in the past when China could hose down and fire at our fishing boats with impunity.
We thus shifted the battle away from armed confrontations where might made right, toward legal arenas where the playing field is less skewed in its favor. No less than
US President Barack Obama has called on China to respect international law. “Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules, and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions,” Obama said. He concluded: “[J]ust because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside.”
And now Mr. Aquino opens the battle on the environmental front. No less than National Scientist for Marine Biology Edgardo Gomez, professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines, writes in a forthcoming essay in the Inquirer’s Talk of the Town about the “unprecedented environmental havoc directly caused by man on the most productive and economically valuable natural ecosystems on the planet.” He reminds us of the global project called the Coral Triangle Initiative that includes four Asean states (the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor-Leste), and focuses on coral reefs as the base ecosystem that supports the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people, providing food and many other ecosystem services.
Just last week, 24 Chinese vessels harvested giant clams, an endangered species. Gomez points out that there are “literally hundreds of tourist shops in Tanmen, Hainan … selling nothing but carved giant clam shells …! It would appear that because ivory is now a controlled substance that cannot be legitimately sourced continually, tridacnid clam shells are being used as a substitute substrate. The advertisements in the shops promote their purchase by tourists by saying that the shells bring good luck as a Buddhist belief!”
We thus provide environmental activists the world over with fresh evidence of yet another example of Chinese abuse of the earth’s resources. We remind them that China, not satisfied with having polluted its cities with emissions from coal-fired power plants, has now extended that abuse to international waters far beyond its shores. We call on them to act because while there is little we can do if China poisons the air in Beijing, there is much we can do if it defiles the Coral Triangle. We make them realize that reclamation is a serious matter, and that states have actually filed suit at international tribunals over the environmental costs of reclamation projects.
In the past, we found it difficult to find allies when we invoked military and security concerns over China’s expansionism. Today it is much easier to find friends with this initiative to save our planet. It is less politically divisive, certainly more inclusive, and obviously more enduring.
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