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China’s bullying targets PH, Vietnam

The recent ramming of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese vessel is the latest act of bullying by China directed at its neighbors. China’s aggression targets mainly fishermen from the Philippines and Vietnam, two claimants of parts of the South China Sea that, according to Beijing, belongs to them since ancient times.

While Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo have made some noise about the incident, with Panelo saying the Duterte administration is ready to sever diplomatic ties with Beijing if the incident is found to be intentional, President Duterte himself eventually ended his silence on the issue by dismissing it as “a little maritime incident.”

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That statement remarkably echoed the Chinese foreign ministry’s own attempt to downplay the issue as “an ordinary maritime traffic accident.” The spokesperson, Geng Shuang, even accused the Philippines of politicizing the incident.

If the incident was indeed accidental, why did the Chinese abandon the 22 Filipino fishermen after their boat sank? Even without international protocols that call for providing assistance to distressed men at sea, the Chinese crewmen, if they were civilized enough, should have assisted the victims. Or have the Chinese become barbarians because of their sudden wealth and after having built military installations in the area?

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After it seized Panatag Shoal, a traditional fishing ground of Zambales fishermen, China installed antiship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three Philippine-claimed reefs in the Spratlys — Kagitingan (international name: Fiery Cross), Zamora (Subi) and Panganiban (Mischief) — that it had seized and transformed into artificial islands, then developed into military outposts.

Vietnam, despite being China’s ideological brother since both are communist states, has been the victim many times over of China’s provocations in the South China Sea. There have been several deadly and bloody encounters between the two countries. In May 2013, China hit and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat; another Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk in May 2014.

But the biggest incident happened on March 14, 1988, when the armies of the two countries clashed at the Johnson South Reef after soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army confronted Vietnamese soldiers in a bid to remove a Vietnamese flag planted there. Ships from both sides exchanged fire, and the heavily outgunned Vietnamese vessels were sunk, leaving 64 Vietnamese soldiers dead and 11 wounded. The Chinese forces suffered only one wounded.

Because they are both victims of Beijing’s continuing aggression, Manila and Hanoi should now jointly move against China, not militarily but through all available diplomatic means.

Although the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague did not include parts claimed by Vietnam but only those claimed by the Philippines, it has nevertheless invalidated China’s mythical nine-dash line, which it uses to claim almost the entire South China Sea.

Vietnam could cooperate with the Philippines in forcing China to at least agree to talk with claimant countries, which includes not just the two countries but also Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam.

There must be other forums for this joint effort, since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) where the claimant countries are members has been largely inutile in resolving the maritime row. Decisions by Asean are always done by consensus, so if any one member opposes any move or proposal, then it could not be adopted. In previous Asean summits, Laos and Cambodia, Beijing’s vassal states, have always objected to the inclusion of China’s maritime aggression in any document issued by Asean.

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The much-anticipated code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea  could have been a viable vehicle to thresh out the sea dispute. But China has been dragging its foot on the COC after it acceded to its adoption in 2002. In the Singapore summit last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang assured the regional grouping that the COC would be finally adopted in 2021, or two years from now. But it remains doubtful whether Beijing would keep its word, given its penchant for double talk.

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Alito L. Malinao, 77, is the former news editor of the Manila Standard. He is on leave as journalism professor at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”

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TAGS: Alito L. Malinao, Inquirer Commentary, PH-China relations, Recto Bank incident, Reed Bank incident, Rodrigo Duterte, Salvador Panelo, Teodoro Locsin Jr.
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