Dredgers, poachers, research ships | Inquirer Opinion

Dredgers, poachers, research ships

/ 05:07 AM February 03, 2021

The discovery of the “illegal and unauthorized presence” of the Chinese dredger MV Zhonhai 68 makes China’s recent passage of a law allowing its coast guard to fire at foreign ships doubly outrageous. Not only was the Zhonhai supposed to have left Philippine territory more than a year ago, its automatic identification system transponder was also found turned off, indicating intent to evade tracking.

Its presence encapsulates China’s cavalier stance that continues to insult and harm Filipinos and to mock the landmark ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016. The ruling—we should not tire of repeating—tosses out China’s nine-dash line with which it lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea, including the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.

Sure, Foreign Secretary Teddyboy Locsin has “fired” a diplomatic protest against China for its new law. But he took his sweet time doing so, initially counseling self-restraint to those vocally smarting at the nerve of the behemoth that sends its dredgers on sly missions. But better late than later, as wise men say, and Locsin’s about-face—a result of “reflection,” he said, but God knows what else—earned him a phone call from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who promised that the US government would “stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of [China’s] pressure.”

China’s new law that Locsin first described, incredibly, as “none of our business” allows its coast guard to use armed force on foreign groups or persons in securing its claimed waters and resources; to destroy structures built by other claimants in its claimed areas; and to board and inspect foreign vessels sailing in those claimed areas. The Chinese embassy has since stated that the new law targets no specific country, but with China’s claim of prior possession of 85.7 percent of the South China Sea by virtue of its nine-dash line—baseless, according to the arbitration court—the law covers Chinese encroachment on the claims of the Philippines and of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Indonesia.


And it should be pointed out yet again that Chinese encroachment has been occurring regularly—under the Palace’s benign gaze. Filipinos can now fish at Panatag Shoal, their fishing ground for generations, only by the grace of Chinese ships and crews stationed there. Pagasa Island, home to Filipino soldiers and families, is constantly “guarded” by a flotilla of Chinese ships. In the dead of night at Recto Bank on June 9, 2019, a Chinese trawler rammed the anchored FB Gem-Ver 1 and left its captain and crew struggling for their lives overboard. They were eventually saved by Vietnamese fishermen.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s condemnation of the maritime hit-and-run quickly petered out. President Duterte kept a stony silence and then pronounced it “a little maritime accident.” Finally, then agri chief Manny Piñol traveled with antiriot police to Occidental Mindoro and managed to get the Gem-Ver kapitan to say on-cam that he, Junel Insigne, who had earlier sworn to seek justice and restitution for himself and his men, was now unsure of what had actually happened…

The discovery of the Zhonhai off Orion Point in Bataan last week is nothing extraordinary given earlier discoveries of Chinese interlopers in Philippine waters, including the research ship Jia Geng, as well as poachers harvesting giant clams or mining black sand. Its seizure by the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Customs is a hopeful note, although past experience suggests less hope and more of wait-and-see. As observed drily by Bayan Muna chair Neri Colmenares, who documented the Zhonhai’s presence along with other dredging ships off Masinloc, Zambales, in February 2019, the government “knew years ago about the presence of Chinese ships like the Zhonhai, but [it] only acted now.”

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate is pushing for a House inquiry into reports that dredged materials were being used by China to build artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea; he said the probe would also cover the possibility that the dredging ops had degraded the environment and caused the disastrous flooding in North and Central Luzon late in 2020.


Will Locsin’s diplomatic protest and Zarate’s proposed inquiry get in the way of the vaccine talks with China’s big pharma? Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr.’s slip showed when he told Sen. Risa Hontiveros at a hearing that “our differences in the West Philippine Sea should be set aside” in order to win the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. But he quickly righted himself, saying: “We will not compromise on our stake.”

The President has not righted his remark—made more than once—that China “is in possession” of the South China Sea, or his declaration of worthlessness (“Inutil ako”) over going to war for Philippine waters and resources. As if war were ever an option.

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TAGS: China, Chinese dredger

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