Mischief Reef – where it all started
First of all, congratulations to PMA Class of 2021, and a warm welcome to the long gray line. The valedictorian is cadet Janrey Artus of Negros Occidental, who is joining the Navy. Of the 163-strong group, 25 are women.
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The mischief began sometime in 1995, possibly earlier, on a small desolate reef among the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The reef is located some 130 nautical miles from Palawan, easily within the 200-mile limit of our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as proclaimed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Incidentally, for those curious minds who are wondering how the reef got its name, according to Wikipedia, the place was discovered by a British mariner whose ship “Mischief” sailed regularly through the region, in the 19th century.
In February 1995, it was discovered that China had built a number of octagonal huts on Mischief Reef (Panganiban). The Ramos administration lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing. At first, the Chinese foreign ministry denied the presence of structures on the reef. Later, they claimed that local fishing authorities had allowed their construction as shelters for Chinese fishermen, adding that Filipino fishermen would be allowed to use the facilities later. After months of huffing and puffing, a Code of Conduct was agreed upon calling for the peaceful settlement of disputes through consultations.
Just after the Apec Summit in Subic came to an end in November 1996, Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a state visit to the Philippines, the first ever by a Chinese head of state. During the visit, President Ramos reiterated the country’s claims to Mischief Reef while President Jiang offered joint development of the Spratlys. One of the highlights of the visit was a musical program on board the presidential yacht, Ang Pangulo, where the two heads of state joined voices in crooning popular melodies like “Love Me Tender” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” It appears that while they were singing their hearts out, the Chinese continued to build and improve the fishermen huts that they had started earlier.
Two years later, Air Force surveillance aircraft showed that the Chinese had constructed a 300-meter pier, new barracks and what appeared to be a command and control center. The new incursions were described as a “creeping invasion” by Chinese forces in violation of the agreed Code of Conduct. A senior Department of Foreign Affairs official made an interesting observation on the developments. He expressed the view that the moment China occupied Mischief and put up structures on the reef, it meant we had lost Mischief Reef. In international politics, occupation is identical to sovereignty. There are a number of similar situations around the globe involving disputed land being occupied by one party and remaining occupied in the face of all kinds of UN resolutions and mediation efforts.
After more than 25 years of tremendous reclamation efforts in the area, the octagonal fishermen huts have blossomed into airbases, radar and communication systems, naval facilities and landing fields capable of accommodating the latest transports and warplanes. They are now all over places on reefs in the Spratlys—Panganiban, Zamora, and Kagitingan, among others—all in the West Philippine Sea, and well within our EEZ.
For what has happened, there is enough blame to be shared by everyone, not just President Duterte. It was during the term of Ramos, that Mischief Reef was lost. The Chinese may have lost the singing competition on board the Pangulo, but they knew exactly what they were doing and the overall objective remained in place. President Joseph Estrada was not around long enough to make a difference. In her 10-year stint at Malacañang, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did nothing about the “creeping invasion” of China. The ZTE–NBN project that allegedly would have funneled some $140 million to various characters in her circle was very much a part of her presidency. A remarkable photo from those days showed her playing golf at ZTE headquarters in China.
We lost Scarborough Shoal during the term of President Noynoy Aquino. There are calls for investigation as to what actually happened that led to Chinese control of the shoal. Mr. Duterte should have remained as chief executive of a city instead of chief executive of the nation. His skills and demeanor are more suited for the former position. And if he did, history would be a lot kinder.
Remember all these when you vote for our next president in May 2022.