Bolstering the Sierra Madre | Inquirer Opinion
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Bolstering the Sierra Madre

The recent IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, where President Marcos was the keynote speaker, underscored the Philippines’ growing recognition as a frontline state in the struggle against China’s expansionism. The country’s “assertive transparency” actions in the West Philippine Sea have garnered international support, elevating the issue from a bilateral dispute to a global concern.

Mr. Marcos warned that continued China aggression in the West Philippine Sea, resulting in the death of a Filipino soldier or any Filipino citizen, is an act short of war that will invoke the mutual defense agreement between the United States and the Philippines. The repeated drawing of this clear red line is a dire indication of the dangers ahead.

China is aware of the risks of miscalculation that could lead to the death of Philippine or other countries’ military personnel. That Chinese sailors, coast guard, and militia continue their aggressive, reckless behavior without sanctions from the Chinese government hierarchy shows that this is an adopted policy applied in various arenas where risky, life-threatening, or conflictual engagements are happening involving Filipino, Taiwanese, Australian, Indian, Japanese, American, and other military personnel. This is the conclusion of a recent public event entitled “Unpacking China’s Military Decision-Making: Perspectives from the Region,” streamed live on June 6 by the think tank National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) (https://rb.gy/166fjz). China is prepared to accept the consequences of these risky behaviors only because it perceives feeble, isolated resistance.

This has to change. The pushback against China’s aggression must transform from bilateral engagement into collective regional and even convergent global action. The Philippines, its regional partners in Asean, its allies, and the rest of the world should cobble together a consensus that such behavior leads to dangerous miscalculation and escalation, and needs to be prevented.

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The “patintero” (a Filipino game of tag) between China and the Philippines must shift from a process akin to the movie “Groundhog Day” to the eventual validation of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration award in favor of the Philippines. One game-changer is obvious—run aground one or two more ship-worthy Philippine navy vessels onto Ayungin Shoal. The NBR forum voiced a suggestion to park a “disused oil and gas facility” on Ayungin, but commissioned navy vessels fit the purpose better. The timing for this action is critical—before the BRP Sierra Madre, a symbol of Philippine sovereignty, crumbles, and until the international community, as a stakeholder in the deterrence of aggression, gathers the resolve to support the Filipino action.

The soldiers stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre are all that stand against China in Ayungin Shoal. They are at mortal risk, for they could be eliminated using techniques that leave no trace, like some mysterious disease, occult sonar or laser device, or other cause. These techniques that China might already possess or simply borrow from its friend, Vladimir Putin, could replace water cannons in dousing the flickering light of sovereignty at Ayungin Shoal.

Beyond the maritime disputes, China’s influence has seeped into the fabric of Filipino society, raising concerns about the integrity of local politics and the loyalty of government officials. The presence of offshore gambling operators and the alleged infiltration of “fake Filipinos” into political offices have further eroded public trust.

This internal mobilization of public opinion and vigilance is important because the counter-narrative of Filipino helplessness in the face of a formidable adversary like China is part of the Chinese strategy of dissipating the Filipino will to fight. Embedded in the Philippines, possible only in a freewheeling democracy, are various foreign agents and local government officials dancing to the beat of a distant Chinese drum.

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This frictional engagement in the West Philippine Sea will continue, and the outcome is dependent on internal as well as external factors. In the Philippines, the main weakness is structural—policy behavior is discontinuous from president to president, and there is no telling what the president to succeed Mr. Marcos will bring. This is why the assertive transparency actions of the Philippines are important to generate international support and Filipino public opinion for resisting Chinese aggression and protecting Philippine sovereignty.

This sentiment must be reflected in the 2028 presidential elections. And bolstering the Sierra Madre should happen before then. As Filipinos would say, reflecting on the need to keep the BRP Sierra Madre alive as a stake of sovereignty, “Aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo? (What use is the grass if the horse has died?)”

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