Rewarding the oppressor
The United States last week imposed sanctions on 24 state-owned Chinese companies for their role “in helping the Chinese military construct and militarize internationally condemned artificial islands in the South China Sea.” Among the companies to which US companies are now prohibited from exporting sans a government license are construction giant China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) and several of its subsidiaries.
These Chinese companies have been involved since 2013 in the dredging and reclamation of more than 1,200 hectares of disputed features in the South China Sea. The artificial islands they have built now host anti-ship missiles and other military equipment, thus, according to the US, “destabilizing the region, trampling on the sovereign rights of its neighbors, and causing untold environmental devastation.”
Since July this year, the US has adopted increasingly strong language and policy actions to counter Beijing’s “unlawful” maritime claims in one of the world’s most vital sea lanes. “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” said US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.
There is overweening self-interest, of course, in the US trying to curb China’s rise and working to maintain its own power and influence in the region. But it is not alone in its wariness toward Beijing’s aggressive expansionism; many other countries, in fact, especially those directly affected by China’s sweeping claims over much of the South China Sea, have expressed similar reservations.
The Philippines, however, which from a calculated standpoint could gain the most from the success of the US pushback as some of the Chinese military installations are in seized Philippine territory, is not joining the move to sanction the Chinese companies. (Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque: “The President was clear in saying he will not follow the directive of the Americans, because we are a free and independent nation. We need investors from China.”)
On the contrary, the Duterte administration had earlier welcomed CCCC into the country and allowed it to work with a local firm on an airport construction project that observers, among them military officials, have warned pose significant risks to national security.
The controversial Sangley Point International Airport project, one of the China-backed multi-billion infrastructure projects greenlighted by the administration, is a joint venture between Lucio Tan’s MacroAsia Corp. and CCCC. The Chinese firm not only had a hand in turning Philippine territory in the WPS into militarized Chinese outposts, it was also blacklisted by the World Bank from 2011-2017 over supposed questionable practices in building the Philippines’ National Roads Improvement and Management Project.
But the far bigger anomaly is that a company owned and controlled by the Chinese government will gain access to a strategic area crucial to the defense of Manila, the country’s capital. In a Facebook post in December last year, retired Navy chief Alexander Pama called the project “highly objectionable and even worse,” and said: “Only an idiot will not understand the adverse security implication to our country of this reported win of MacroAsia and its Chinese company partner to purchase Sangley airport. If this is implemented, it will be a dagger pointed to the heart of the nation!”
Greg Poling of the US-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative also noted in a tweet the jarring irony of the Philippines kowtowing to CCCC—the bullied, in effect, rewarding its oppressor: “This is bonkers. Manila to award a multi-billion dollar airport project, and at a strategically vital location, to the same Chinese company that illegally built an artificial island at Mischief Reef in PH waters.”
None of these concerns, unfortunately, has made inroads into the Duterte administration’s slavish stance toward China, despite Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. batting for the termination of the contracts with Chinese companies involved in the WPS reclamation. Samar Rep. Edgar Mary Sarmiento, chair of the House transportation committee, has expressed support for Locsin’s proposal, as “allowing these Chinese companies to operate here is way too much of an insult for all Filipinos.”
It is, but it’s an insult that is lost, first of all, on Sen. Imee Marcos, who opposed scrapping such onerous deals for markedly defeatist reasons: “Bakit naman tayo magtatapang-tapangan kung wala naman tayong ibubuga?” (Why act brave when we’re really weak?)
And it is an insult that is lost, as usual, on Malacañang, which appears to be in the grip of full-blown Stockholm Syndrome. Explaining President Duterte’s decision to reject the US move and stick it out with China, Roque declared, in high solemn seriousness: “We are not a vassal state of any foreign power.”
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