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Editorial

The swarm is back

/ 05:06 AM August 06, 2019

Fresh reports say more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels have been seen once again around the Philippines’ Pag-asa Island — a repeat of the swarming action they did in March.

At least three key Cabinet officials have, for a change, been rankled enough to publicly protest the latest Chinese incursion into Philippine territory, in a break from the Duterte administration’s prevailing attitude of placation toward Beijing.

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National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon last week reported that there were at least 113 Chinese fishing vessels spotted on July 24 around Pag-asa Island, the biggest Philippine-occupied island with an established municipality (Kalayaan) and a Philippine military presence.

Filing a diplomatic protest over the Chinese swarm, Esperon said, was the right thing to do — a course of action Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. apparently agreed with.

“Diplomatic protest fired off,” Locsin tweeted — although he has never deigned to enlighten his social media universe about the results of such official objections.

In June, Locsin claimed he also “fired off” a diplomatic protest when a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sank a Philippine fishing boat in the Recto Bank. But that was apparently the end of it, because until now the Chinese seamen who left 22 Filipinos thrashing in the water have not been held to account.

Such a protest was already needed the first time around, when the Chinese ships, in a show of force and intimidation, were seen swarming around Pag-asa early this year.

The military said it had monitored an “extraordinary surge” of more than 600 Chinese fishing vessels surrounding the island in the first three months of 2019 alone.

The effect, said Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo, was that the Chinese vessels were blocking the path of Filipino fishermen fishing around the sandbars.

It is not only Chinese fishing vessels that have been trespassing in Philippine waters.

According to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Chinese warships have passed through the Sibutu Strait in the waters of Tawi-Tawi at least four times—without prior notice to Philippine authorities. These ships included a Chinese aircraft carrier.

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The unauthorized passage was compounded by another act of bad faith: The Chinese military ships turned off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) when passing through Philippine territory.

Lorenzana took up the grave transgression with the Chinese ambassador, who he said “agreed with me when I discussed this matter with him, that it was not right for their warships to put off their AIS to hide their presence to us.”

The Chinese envoy supposedly said it was a “mistake,” and offered the assurance that “next time, whenever their warships will be sailing through the country’s territorial waters, they will inform us.”

Some mistake. Passing through Philippine waters several times not only without permission but with the intent to hide that devious action is obviously a much more alarming offense than the already provocative behavior of the Chinese maritime militia around Pag-asa.

But those holding their breath awaiting Locsin’s announcement that he has filed yet another formal protest with Beijing over this matter are for now unable to exhale; none seems forthcoming, when China’s escalating boldness and aggression all but point to the need for President Duterte’s national defense and security officials to press their boss for a sterner, less obsequious approach that would reassert Philippine dignity and sovereignty in the face of Beijing’s shabby treatment of a country it calls its “friend.”

Malacañang has not even summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Palace for the President to personally convey his displeasure over the Sibutu Strait incursions. (Surely Mr. Duterte is displeased at the Chinese warships’ temerity to try to hoodwink his government?)

Instead, the Chinese envoy was recently treated to what no doubt was a first for him — the leader of a sovereign nation openly defending and making the case for Beijing’s actions and claims over the South China Sea (claims the rest of the global community reject under international law) in that leader’s State of the Nation Address no less.

If the President cannot tell off the ambassador over acknowledged instances of Chinese trespassing and deception within Philippine waters, how can Locsin’s protests be expected to be taken seriously?

That odious behavior will happen again and again, only getting bigger and more menacing each time, with hardly a whimper coming from the willing victim.

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TAGS: Delfin Lorenzana, EEZ, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., Inquirer editorial, Maritime Dispute, Rodrigo Duterte, Teodoro Locsin Jr., West Philippine Sea
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