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Words, words and more words

/ 04:05 AM November 25, 2019

Almost 25 years ago, it was discovered that China had built a number of octagonal huts on Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in the Spratlys. The government headed by President Fidel V. Ramos, immediately lodged a strong diplomatic protest with Beijing. According to a senior foreign service official at that time, this was how China reacted to the protest: “Initially, the Chinese foreign ministry denied knowledge of the establishment and occupation of structures in the reef. When pictures of the structures and vessels in Panganiban Reef appeared in the newspapers, the Chinese modified their story by saying that the structures were authorized by local fishing authorities to serve as shelter for Chinese fishermen. When they were asked to direct those local authorities to dismantle the structures, Beijing said it would be difficult to explain such a move to their people, considering that they have ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the area. Moreover, they added, Filipino fishermen along with other nationals, would later be allowed to use the facilities.”

For a while, nothing much was heard about the Spratlys.

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In November 1996 after the conclusion of the Apec Summit in Subic, Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a state visit to the Philippines, the first-ever by a Chinese head of state. One of the highlights of the state visit was a musical program wherein both presidents joined voices in crooning popular melodies like “Love Me Tender” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Jiang belted out solo versions of “One Day When We Were Young” and “Aloha Oe.”

From what we now know, it is very likely that while the two presidents were having a wonderful time singing their hearts out with love songs and old-time favorites, the Chinese continued to build up and improve the fishermen huts that they had started earlier. Two years later, aerial photographs taken by Air Force surveillance aircraft, showed that since the Ramos-Jiang songfest aboard the Ang Pangulo, the Chinese had constructed a 300-meter pier, new barracks and what appeared to be some kind of command center for communications and control. The new incursions were described as a “creeping invasion” by Chinese forces and the Philippines fired another diplomatic protest. Again, the Chinese denied that the structures were for military use but also publicly declared that China had never offered joint use of the Spratly facilities.

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Today, as a result of land reclamation efforts in the area, the octagonal fishermen huts of 25 years ago have blossomed into air bases, radar and communication systems, naval facilities and defensive weaponry in place, including landing fields able to accommodate military planes. The latest report indicates that Beijing has installed antiship and air-to-air defense systems on reefs in the Spratlys—Zamora, Panganiban and Kagitingan Reefs— all found in the West Philippine Sea that is within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

Last week, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in a stopover visit, reiterated US commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty, saying, “It is crucial that we stand together to preserve freedom of navigation and overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea.”

Esper is the third defense chief of the Trump administration, after Gen. James Mattis and Patrick Shanahan, although Shanahan served in an acting capacity. He is a graduate of the US Military Academy, Class of 1986, and was awarded the Douglas MacArthur Award for Leadership. That makes both the US secretaries of state and defense West Point graduates belonging to the same class. While Secretary of State Michael Pompeo finished as class valedictorian, Esper won the leadership award.

In January 1973, just before the Paris Peace Accords were signed, President Richard Nixon sent a letter to South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu. Portions of the letter read: “… The best guarantee for the survival of South Vietnam is the unity of our two countries… you have my assurance of continued assistance in the postsettlement period and that we will respond with full force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam.” Several months later, Congress ended military funding assistance for South Vietnam. In April 1975, Thieu resigned and went into exile in London. In one of his rare interviews he said, “It is so easy to be an enemy of the United States and so difficult to be a friend.”

Let us not get too enamored either by China’s offer of easy loans or by American expressions of goodwill and assistance. We must learn to rely on ourselves, difficult as this may seem.

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TAGS: China, Diplomacy, maritime row, Mark Esper, Military, Mischief Reef, Panganiban Reef, Philippines, politics, security, sovereignty, spratlys, territory
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