To news that a swarm of more than 600 Chinese vessels has been observed massing up since January near Pag-asa Island, Malacañang first hedged as usual, saying it needed to verify the report, then claimed the administration had actually filed a diplomatic protest with Beijing over the matter.
No, not one wee memo, but a “salvo of diplomatic notes,” according to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
If true, that would be, for once, a welcome display of spine from this administration. But, pressed on social media by citizens to disclose the contents of the diplomatic protest, Locsin’s classy response was: “You have my word for it, and that is all you get. Manigas na kayo nag da doubt pa!” (Drop dead, you doubters.)
But the public has every reason to doubt. Filipinos have heard this once before, from the same office. In June 2018, fending off accusations that the Duterte administration’s responses to provocation after provocation from China had been routinely weak, then Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) had, in fact, filed “several dozens, maybe 50, 100” diplomatic protests against China over the past two years — so many that “I’ll have to count it.”
Either Cayetano was lying outright, or he gave up counting, because it’s been five months since he left the DFA to run for representative of Taguig, and neither hair nor hide of those “several dozens” of protests against Beijing has seen the light of day.
Not once has he mentioned them in his campaign speeches, either, which means this inveterate politician doesn’t even see what would have amounted to a demonstration of patriotism and defiance against China under his watch as an achievement to crow about.
There is, at any rate, another way to test whether the latest protests have indeed been filed, or heard in Beijing with any serious consideration: if the Chinese government accedes to the Duterte administration’s presumed demand for its “maritime militia” — as the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines calls the Chinese vessels circling Pag-asa Island — to back off and leave the area. Is anyone holding his or her breath that China would suddenly become that accommodating?
But why should it bother, when no less than the Philippines’ presidential spokesperson has assumed the job of rationalizing China’s aggressive actions?
In a TV interview, Salvador Panelo said the Philippines would “ask politely” why these Chinese vessels were swarming Pag-asa Island.
Then, in a Malacañang briefing, he downplayed the matter altogether. Only 275 Chinese ships are there, not 600, he said; and they are not circling Pag-asa, they are merely stationary, which, in Panelo’s mind, makes a whale of a difference: “If they are circling, they are planning something. But, if you are only stationary, maybe you are just watching.”
Would somebody please tell Panelo that those ships have been “watching” since 2017?
That’s when Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano and Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV first raised the alarm that an unusual number of Chinese vessels had been sighted massing in the sandbars around Pag-asa Island.
The warning went unheeded and Alejano and Trillanes were tagged as liars by Malacañang, despite satellite images released by the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) confirming the report.
In February, Amti provided fresh photos indicating that China had also deployed militia vessels to a reef southwest of Pag-asa Island, as part of Beijing’s so-called cabbage strategy, where it surrounds a contested area with multiple layers of maritime vessels, from fishing boats to Coast Guard and Army vessels, to deny access to and establish firm control over the area.
Take note: Pag-asa Island is not even a contested area, but indubitably Philippine territory. It is part of Kalayaan town in Palawan and home to a military detachment and a village of about 100 Filipinos.
What the Chinese maritime militia seems up to, in effect, is to intimidate visitors off the area, just as the Philippine military is undertaking long-overdue upgrade work on the facilities in Pag-asa, including a beaching ramp and an air strip.
So much for the “friendly” relations this administration has been assiduously pursuing with China. But, if the Palace is to be believed, proper protests have been made this time. Will that “salvo of diplomatic notes” make a difference?
Because if nothing happens and those Chinese vessels remain threateningly massed around Pag-asa, then the message is likewise clear from Beijing to the Philippine government that’s been extra obsequious to it: “Manigas kayo!”
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