A sight familiar to Philippine Coast Guard personnel and Filipino fishermen docked at the Manila port last week: a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship with the tell-tale blue and red streaks painted on its white hull.
Ships like it are not a welcoming presence in the West Philippine Sea where they are often encountered; as ABS-CBN’s Chiara Zambrano noted in her report, they are the vessels that would drive away Philippine ships, shoo Filipino fishermen (sometimes with water cannon) away from their traditional fishing grounds, and blockade shoals that are well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone — because the CCG, upon Beijing’s orders, insists that the waters are Chinese territory.
But there was CCG Vessel 5204 docking at the capital for what was billed as a “goodwill” or “friendly” visit — at the height of the national emergency caused by the Taal Volcano eruption, which would displace hundreds of thousands of families and disrupt economic activity in one of the country’s most important economic hubs in the blink of an afternoon, and leave the government scrambling to get official relief efforts going.
In Manila’s Port Area, however, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) was busy rolling out the red carpet and giving formal arrival ceremonies for its Chinese counterpart, complete with a large contingent of PCG personnel in their parade attire.
It turned out, in the wake of public indignation over the government’s effusive welcome, that it was the PCG that had invited the CCG to come for a week-long visit. What were they thinking?
PCG commandant Admiral Joel Garcia justified his bright idea of inviting the very enforcer of China’s militarization of and destructive illegal fishing in the South China Sea as an “opportunity” to air the Philippines’ grievances.
“Kung uunahin natin at aalalahanin parati yung ginawang masama sa ating mga mangingisda, hindi na po uusad… Wala pong ibang solusyon kundi pumunta tayo sa isang lamesa mag-usap harap-harapan, at sabihin natin ang ating hinaing (If we focus on the wrongs they have done against our fishermen, we will not move forward… The only solution for us is to talk face to face and to tell them our grievances),” Garcia told reporters.
He added: “Mauunawaan ng taumbayan na kahit na alam natin na kung mananatili ϣyung sama ng loob ng dalawang tao, hindi nag-uusap, tuluyan na magkaaway hindi po maganda sa pamilya (The people will understand that if hard feelings will remain between two people without talking, the conflict will go on. It is not good for the family).”
What “family” is Garcia talking about? And why should the Philippines assume the obeisant, mollifying pose, when Beijing has never been apologetic for its bullying, provocative actions in the West Philippine Sea?
In fact, right on the week the CCG was being feted in Manila, one of its ships was spotted anew reconnoitering around Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), some 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Palawan.
As Ryan Martinson, an assistant professor at the US Naval War College’s Chinese Maritime Studies Institute, noted in a tweet accompanied by a photo of the ship’s movement: “The Philippines rolls out the red carpet for the Commander of the China Coast Guard. Meanwhile, a China Coast Guard ship steams back and forth, menacing Philippine Marines posted at Second Thomas Shoal.”
Since Garcia’s stated lofty goal was to raise the issue of the harassment of Filipino fishermen during the CCG’s “goodwill visit,” he has to be asked: Did the discussion actually happen, and what was the result of it? What were the points agreed upon between the two parties?
If he fails to answer that, then Garcia must be seen as having dissembled and talked out of both sides of his mouth. After all, according to an official higher than him in the pecking order — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana — the visit was “not the proper venue” to raise the issue.
It would be more appropriate, said Lorenzana, to iron this out during the discussions on the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. So if no substantive discussion happened, what exactly was the visit for?
This is misplaced solicitousness at its worst — a slap in the face of all the recurring incidents of harassment of Filipino fishermen, the swarming of Chinese vessels around Pagasa island and the unauthorized passage of dozens of Chinese warships in Philippine waters, not to mention the deep distrust of China among the public (as much as 85 percent of Filipinos, according to surveys). No self-respecting country would abase itself this way.
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