The Recto Bank incident: China’s dark side
President Duterte, during a Tokyo forum on Asia’s future on May 29, found the strength to question China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea. Duterte has shelved the Hague arbitral ruling in favor of a muscular pro-China foreign policy, but he uncharacteristically demanded: “Is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?”
Nothing escapes the attention of the 89-million member Communist Party of China. More than a week later, on the night of June 9, Beijing responded to Duterte’s temerity: A Chinese vessel rammed a Philippine fishing boat anchored at Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea and fled the scene, leaving the FB Gem-Vir 1 sinking and its crew of 22 Filipino fishermen floundering desperately in the brine.
China’s barbaric action on the high seas can be directly traced to its assailed warrant of sovereignty over some 85 percent of the South China Sea. The warrant authorizes the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to take all necessary measures to maintain Beijing’s irredentist claims, including the use of force.
In the years between 1988 and 1999, there were 13 military clashes in the South China Sea, with China on one side and other claimant nations on the other. Between 2011 and 2019, some 28 clashes flared as Beijing continued to consolidate its gains in the Spratlys, including the development of seven PLA forward bases.
Except for a brief naval battle in March 1988, when PLA forces seized six isles in the Spratly chain from Vietnam and killed 72 Vietnamese sailors, Beijing has employed low-key tactics to avoid armed confrontation as well as to gradually devalue other overlapping claims in the area. The tactics include menacing air and sea maneuvers, skirmishes, and the swarming of fishing and militia vessels to deny access to the disputed territory.
Contemptuous of our weak governance, Beijing is not hesitating to use these capabilities against Filipinos. Its primary goal is to maneuver the Philippines and Asean into positions of increasing vulnerability while expanding its own strategic posture.
Beijing’s soft-power arsenal is also reliant on deception or double-dealing. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his state visit to the United States, assured the Obama administration that “there is no intention to militarize” contested reefs in the Spratlys. “We’re committed to respecting and upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight that countries enjoy according to international law,” he said. “Relevant construction activities that China are (sic) undertaking in the island of Nansha Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization.”
In June 2018, however, after Beijing had installed an array of armaments on Mischief Reef and six other cays in the Spratlys, Xi bluntly told visiting US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that “not a single inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors must be lost.”
Xi’s duplicity is perhaps best explained by Henry Kissinger. In his magisterial opus “On China,” Kissinger characterized such demeanor as “unabashedly driven by realpolitik and unencumbered by any serious need to justify Chinese behavior in terms of international law or ethical norms. This allows the Chinese government to be ruthlessly flexible, since it feels… largely immune to criticisms of inconsistency.”
Owing to millennia of recorded history and their country’s astonishing rise as a hegemon, Chinese leaders have an enormous superiority complex. In Chinese iconography, neighboring peoples are condescendingly seen as barbarians. O.D. Corpuz, in “The Roots of the Filipino Nation,” pointed out that earlier rulers of the Middle Kingdom maintained a document titled “Chu Fan Chih,” which translates to “Records of Various Barbarous Nations.”
Yet in the annals of human savagery, none is more barbaric than China’s great famine (1958-1961). As many as 45 million people perished in that famine, according to recent historical accounts, and it was the result of economic and political policies born of totalitarianism. So the lives of 22 Filipino fisherfolk mean nothing to Beijing.
The Recto Bank incident should give us pause to rethink our long-term relations with China. For in the face of imperial Beijing’s thuggish tactics, Xi’s call for “the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, to solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia” rings as an invitation to neo-colonialism.
Rex D. Lores ([email protected]) is a member of the Philippine Futuristics Society.
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