Invasion by intimidation
Antonio Carpio issued a warning last week on China’s “new warfare strategy” that should give Filipinos pause. Speaking at a live event on Facebook, he said China’s “game plan” was to “win” the South China Sea “without firing a single shot.” The strategy, he said, was intimidation.
China has been building air and naval bases in the disputed waters—including parts of the exclusive economic zones of other claimants Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines—in order to enforce the 9-dash line that it touts as the basis for its alleged historic right to almost the entire South China Sea. “They think they can win, make the 9-dash line their national boundary, by simply intimidating us,” said Carpio, Inquirer columnist and retired Supreme Court senior associate justice who champions the Philippines’ position as a claimant country in the South China Sea in forums here and abroad.
“They will continue their creeping invasion by intimidation,” he said, adding that China was being careful about not provoking war with the Philippines because it “could bring in the [United States] and the whole structure would collapse.”
Provocative things happened last month as the Philippines was engrossed in playing catch-up with the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
On April 2 the Chinese Coast Guard sank a Vietnamese boat in the Paracels. Later in the month China’s State Council, its top administrative body, announced the creation of two new municipal districts: Nansha District on Fiery Cross Reef (Kagitingan Reef to the Philippines and part of the Kalayaan Island Group that the Philippines claims as its territory), which will supposedly oversee all of the Spratly Islands and their surrounding waters, and Xisha District based on Woody Island.
Vietnam, which provides sharp lessons on sovereignty and national dignity to all and sundry whenever China intrudes into its waters, protested the sinking of its boat. (Not too long ago, when a Chinese vessel hit and sank the Philippine fishing boat Gem-Ver and left its crew floundering in the sea, President Duterte deemed it a small accident.) The Philippines, in a seeming breakaway from its customary kick-me position vis-à-vis the incursions of its “BFF”—the Malacañang mouthpiece Harry Roque’s estimation of the lopsided relationship—likewise protested the sinking of the Vietnamese boat; the Department of Foreign Affairs, otherwise mostly supine in its dealings with the Asian behemoth, also “strongly protested” the establishment of the municipal districts and declared that the Philippines “does not recognize the Chinese names given to some features in the Kalayaan Island Group.”
It’s a surprising albeit welcome stance by the DFA, but in fact neither here nor there. China was silent on the protest, as though it couldn’t be bothered by the declaration of offended virtue—a studied insouciance that has governed its behavior concerning its sweeping claim to the South China Sea.
As the journalist Steve Mollman wrote on May 9: “In the mid-90s, Beijing reassured Manila that its new stilted structure at Mischief Reef, located in the Spratly Islands just 217 kilometers from a Philippine coast, was a fishermen’s shelter. By 2018 the reef had been turned into a militarized artificial island complete with antiship cruise missiles. The transformation was likely Beijing’s intention all along, even though in September 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping promised the Spratlys would not, despite all appearances, be militarized.”
How best, in the face of China’s continuing aggression despite the COVID-19 pandemic, to respond? Nguyen Hong Son, director general of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam’s Institute for the South China Sea, and Jay Batongbacal, maritime law expert at the University of the Philippines, agree that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should unite behind the 2016 ruling of the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, which pronounced China’s 9-dash line illegal and upheld the Philippines’ rights over the West Philippine Sea on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
If Asean continues “to invoke the ruling, relying on it, and essentially invoking it as the proper way to allocate jurisdictions… then hopefully that will provide a much longer-term and much more stable solution to these disputes,” Batongbacal said.
Besieged as it is by the onslaught of the pandemic on the Philippines’ creaking health system, the government must strain to work with other Asean members to push back against China’s encroachments that have resulted in, among others, the destruction and dwindling of Philippine reefs and marine resources.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros was correct to point out in April that China owed the Philippines over P200 billion in damages for environmental destruction in the West Philippine Sea. It’s time the Philippines collected.
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