‘It’s not our concern’
In yet another illustration of the kick-me stance to which its own officials have reduced the Philippines, it is grievously silent on China’s actions toward the Greek-owned, Liberian-flagged oil tanker Green Aura in the West Philippine Sea last Sept. 30.
The vessel crewed by 21 Filipinos led by Capt. Manolo Ebora was heading from Thailand to Longkou, China, when a Chinese vessel identifying itself as a naval warship demanded that it change its course in order to veer away from Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines claims as its territory and which it calls Panatag Shoal or, its ancient name, Bajo de Masinloc.
In his narration of the events, Ebora told Rappler that his insistence on the right of innocent passage fell on deaf ears in the course of his radio exchange with those on board any of about five Chinese vessels (one unidentified) clustered in the area. His refusal to heed the order that he “aim [his] course to 0-8-0 degrees” as well as his repeated question “Is this a Chinese territory?” eventually resulted in China Coast Guard 3302 moving in the direction of the Green Aura with the apparent intent of cutting it in its course and subsequently tailing it. In the end, a stern voice announced: “This is the China Coast Guard. This area is under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government. You should keep away from this area.”
Not surprisingly, in the same manner that it wore down the narrative of the captain and crew of the fishing boat Gem Ver 1 that a Chinese vessel had rammed and caused to sink in a hit-and-run incident, the government shredded what was left of its self-respect and in effect said the Green Aura’s experience was no big deal.
The imperious display of might in the Philippines’ very waters elicited a veritable hum of harmony from the well-trained ranks of President Duterte’s lieutenants. Having apparently grown accustomed to brutish treatment from the Philippines’ giant neighbor, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, onetime holder of the foreign affairs portfolio, pronounced that it was nothing new. Mr. Duterte’s spokesperson Salvador Panelo said it was “not our concern, because it’s not a Philippine vessel.”
Toying with the complexities of foreign policy, Heckle and Jeckle trotted out the old think-of-the-jobs-that-will-be-lost bogey: Invoking Philippine sovereignty to protest the incident will endanger the employment of more than 400,000 Filipino mariners, intoned Panelo; “Want the employment of 400,000 Filipino mariners to hang in the balance of the games an idiot native media likes to play?” huffed Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
Panelo went further into paroxysms of diplomacy, so-called: “We cannot deprive the country being represented by the oil tanker of its right and duty to protect its own ship. To do otherwise will be effectively divesting such country of its right and competence to take [up] the cudgels for its ship. Such a demeanor will be a disrespect to it and even insulting to the capability of that country to assert its right.”
It fell to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to state for the record that it was incumbent on the Chinese government to “respect international maritime laws if it wants to earn the respect of the international community,” and to remind everyone that “Bajo de Masinloc is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and the 2016 arbitral ruling declared that it is a common fishing area.” From his vantage point of bending over backward, Locsin has yet to screech that Filipino mariners’ jobs are now at high risk because of this reminder.
Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal correctly framed the government’s silence on the matter as “a sign of acquiescence” to China’s assertion of jurisdiction over the Green Aura. “This is like saying that the Philippines is not concerned that China exercises jurisdiction over Scarborough against any other state. It’s like a person not caring that his house is being managed by someone else who claims to be the owner, and makes other people recognize he is the real owner,” Batongbacal said.
And still China continues to engage in provocative behavior in the West Philippine Sea. According to the military’s report on the situation in the area in the first semester, warning flares were fired from Chinese outposts six times in February at Philippine military planes on maritime patrol near the artificial islands built by China. The flares, per Maj. Gen. Reuben Basiao, deputy chief of staff for military intelligence, were intended as a warning to Filipino pilots to stay away.
Basiao added that the military had also monitored 17 Chinese research vessels in the eastern portion of Philippine waters during the period January-June. Nothing new?
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