Countering Beijing’s octopussy diplomacy
The recent brazen moves of Chinese maritime surveillance vessels operating over 1,100 kilometers from China’s coast to prevent Philippine civilian vessels from resupplying the tiny marine garrison aboard the BRP Sierra Madre beached on Ayungin Shoal, 200 km from Palawan, are steps in the execution of the so-called “cabbage strategy” articulated last year by Chinese General Major General Zhang Zhaozhong. The aim is to surround Bajo de Masinloc, Ayungin Shoal and other Philippine territories in Spratly Islands with a massive Chinese naval presence to starve Filipino detachments and prevent reinforcements from reaching them.
A cabbage is the wrong image for such a bellicose approach. Perhaps it is time to call it what it really for is: an “octopus strategy” designed to strangle our forces island by island, reef by reef, till they drive us out of Pag-asa Island that is the strategic center of the municipality of Kalayaan of the province of Palawan.
With China dead-set on imposing its ridiculous claims using its naval advantage, the Philippine government must respond in ways that maximize our advantages. To borrow James C. Scott’s terms, we must deploy the “weapons of the weak.”
Weapons of the weak
First of all, we must press our legal advantage. The submission of the 4,000-page “memorial” delineating our entitlements in the West Philippine Sea to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal is a giant step in this direction. Beijing knows it does not have a leg to stand on in international law, which is why they have been pushing us to drop the case on pain of “damaging bilateral relations.” As Vietnamese analysts told me during a recent visit to Hanoi, our raising the case to the United Nations blindsided Beijing and upset China’s careful calculations. According to one expert on Chinese diplomacy, “the reason they’re upset is because they already have five battlefields—the political, diplomatic, mass media, security, military—and now you’ve added a sixth: the legal battlefield.” Beijing, in other words, feels very much at sea on the legal front, where experts in international law will be calling the shots.
Second, we must up the diplomatic ante. President Benigno Aquino III must summon Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to Malacañang and tell her in no uncertain terms that our country will tolerate no further aggressive moves.
We must also press our Asean partners to remind Beijing to live up to the commitment to negotiate a binding code of conduct on maritime behavior in the West Philippine Sea that it made at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Brunei last year. Having been attacked and humiliated by the Chinese government and state media during the MH 370 crisis, Malaysia, which is one of the Spratly claimants, is probably now more open to collective Asean action on the South China Sea since it just experienced what feels like to be at the other end of China’s bullyboy diplomacy. As for Vietnam, we should press it to move to more active cooperation with us, including implementation of the joint Vietnamese-Philippine naval patrols in the South China Sea that both governments agreed to in 2012. We should underline to both countries and to the fourth Asean claimant, Brunei, that Beijing is playing salami tactics with Asean, that once it finishes with the “weakest link,” they’re next.
Still on the diplomatic track, we should prepare the ground at the United Nations General Assembly for the eventual introduction of a resolution condemning Beijing’s unilateral annexation of over 80 per cent of the South China Sea, brusquely disregarding other littoral states’ rights to their continental shelves and 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones. There’s a very good recent precedent: Beijing’s aggressive annexationism based on its arbitrary Nine Dash Line claim is essentially similar to Russia’s gobbling up of Crimea, which the General Assembly condemned last week.
Not entirely powerless
Third, we must not neglect the military side of things, though we should tread carefully here since this is where Beijing is strong. But we are not entirely powerless. China’s maritime surveillance ships may be big but they cannot operate in shallow waters owing to their deep drafts. Relying on civilian craft with experienced pilots that can move deftly in and out of shallow waters to pierce the blockade of Ayungin Shoal, as one supply ship was able to do successfully a few days ago, will do for now. But we should be prepared for all eventualities, including that of being forced to resort to resupplying the Ayungin garrison with air drops. The Philippine Air Force has several medium sized aircraft, like the P3 Orion long-range maritime surveillance plane based in Puerto Princesa, that can be outfitted for light resupply missions. We must remember that while our air force is small and weak, China’s suffers from the “tyranny of distance.” As former Westcom chief General Juancho Sabban pointed out, the Chinese mainland is so far away that by the time Chinese military aircraft get to the Spratlys, they are low on fuel and have to turn back.
We must also reinforce the garrison at Ayungin. Bringing up the troop complement to platoon size would be a strong message to the world that we mean business and will defend Ayungin from all trespassers. Of course, such a defensive move will evoke protests from Beijing, but we have every right to reinforce our garrison with personnel and modern arms that will assure the defenders a minimum level of security and lend credibility to our government’s commitment never ever to give up the reef.
Economic development: Key to permanent possession
Finally, we must accelerate the development of Pag-asa Island, the strategic center of the Kalayaan Island group of seven reefs and two islands that belong to us. The development of modern harbor facilities is long overdue. When Reps. Ben Evardone, Kaka Bag-ao, Teddy Baguilat, and I visited Pag-Asa as members of a Peace and Sovereignty Mission from Congress in July 2011, we came away with a strong sense of the potential of the island as a fishing station and tourist site, and this was a message that we carried to our executive agencies. It is time that Malacañang moves on long-proposed economic development plans, something that the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Taiwanese have apparently undertaken in the parts of the Spratly archipelago they occupy. Once things get going, this will lead to a rapid increase in the civilian population from the 300 that are there at present. A larger civilian population is the key to permanent possession of Kalayaan.
INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello represents Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives. He led a Peace and Sovereignty Mission from Congress to Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys in July 2011.
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