Deal with China? Winner takes all
The Philippines’ second warship acquired from the United States, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz, arrived on Sunday at the former US naval base in Subic Bay amid conflict between Manila and Beijing over ownership of territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The Philippine government hailed the arrival of the Hamilton-class cutter, a World War II vessel that had been decommissioned by the US Coast Guard, as a step toward beefing up the Philippine Navy’s capability to counter what Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario denounced as China’s “massive military buildup in the West Philippine Sea.”
Speaking at an experts’ conference on maritime security in Brussels last month, Del Rosario said China’s assertion of ownership over almost all of the West Philippine Sea could restrict freedom of navigation in sea-lanes critical to global trade.
Citing China’s “overwhelming naval and maritime presence far beyond its mainland shores,” Del Rosario accused Beijing of “raising regional tensions” in the sea, apparently referring to the incursions of Chinese vessels into shoals and islets “well within the Philippines’ 360-kilometer exclusive economic zone.”
Del Rosario castigated China for its “unilateral coercive actions,” saying these seemed an assertion of sovereignty over territories within Beijing’s self-proclaimed “nine-dash-line” map that embraces most of the sea, including waters within the economic exclusion zones of Southeast Asian nations.
The delineation of the nine-dash-line zone “is extremely close to the coasts of other littoral states,” he warned.
“Arbitrary claims to maritime territory could also be arbitrarily invoked to regulate passage of ships through the large maritime areas the nine-dash line encloses,” he said.
“On its face, this expansive claim could turn an international body of water into a lake of one nation,” he said.
Actually, in the Brussels conference, the Philippines was lining up support for its arbitration bid in the United Nations seeking a peaceful settlement of conflicting territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea involving China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
This diplomatic initiative has so far failed to gain ground, driving the conflict dangerously toward the brink of gunboat confrontations among China, the United States, Japan, Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, which has one of weakest navies in the region.
The second Philippine warship, the Ramon Alcaraz, which arrived on Sunday after a two-month voyage from South Carolina, is to join its sister ship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, also a decommissioned Hamilton-class cutter acquired by the Philippines from the US Coast Guard in August 2011.
The two ships will patrol Philippine coastal waters in the face of China’s growing naval power and assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea.
Since May last year, Chinese fishing fleets, escorted by gunboats, have entered and left Philippine waters virtually at will. The Inquirer has reported that Chinese ships, after disappearing for a few days early last month, have returned to Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground west of Zambales province and within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Three Chinese vessels have also converged on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Philippines’ part of the Spratly archipelago in the middle of the West Philippine Sea.
The impunity with which Chinese ships penetrate Philippine waters while mocking claims of Philippine sovereignty over disputed territories has led to the establishment of a de facto Chinese rule of law in the region, a sort of Pax Sinica enforced at the point of the guns of the Chinese Navy.
It has also given rise to defeatist attitudes shown by such questions as what can two aging and ill-equipped warships do to roll back Chinese incursions into weaker neighbors’ territories.
Some quarters argue that building up a navy on two outmoded coast guard cutters is a “futile exercise.” It is claimed that the two vessels are “obsolete … we can’t defend ourselves with them.”
Recipe for surrender
This argument is a variation on the theme, in the context of Hitler’s blitzkrieg of France in Wold War II, “we can’t stop Panzer tanks with Bren guns.”
This “balisong” (fan knife) against China’s “machine gun” argument is a recipe for supine surrender to Chinese blackmail.
This argument also has a sinister anti-American implication. It asks, “Why are our friends giving these junk (the coast guard cutters) to us?” It claims that there are other ways to get a better deal than “junk and obsolete vessels,” and the Philippines can get one such deal by talking with China.
Certainly on their own terms, and you will lose everything.
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