Flag-raising in Spratlys macabre exercise in futility
The nation marked on Thursday the 116th anniversary of Philippine independence with the raising of the flag in all nine Philippine outposts in the Spratly Islands.
The show of the flag in the disputed territories sent a defiant message that the Philippines is determined to resist China’s aggressive encroachments in areas within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), with any means at its command. That includes pressing its arbitration case in the United Nations challenging China’s arbitrary and unilateral assertion of ownership of Philippine-claimed territories in the Spratlys, despite China’s overwhelming military power.
In real terms, the Philippines’ display of the flag was more symbolic than a show of military muscle to back its diplomatic moves to defend its territories from being gobbled up by China. The flag-raising action came a week after the Philippine government expressed concern over new reports that military surveillance had monitored Chinese ships engaged in land reclamation in Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef), in what Philippine officials called an attempt to create an artificial island on the reef for military purposes.
The Philippines has standing protests concerning Chinese incursions earlier reported in Mabini Reef and Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) off the province of Palawan and in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) off the province of Zambales. According to military reports, Chinese ships are known to “come and go” with impunity in these areas.
Chinese patrols and the apparent reclamation activities have continued despite Manila’s diplomatic reports and pursuit of the arbitration case in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
The arbitration tribunal has ordered China to respond to the Philippine case, which seeks to nullify China’s claimed nine-dash line covering 90 percent of the South China Sea, and to halt incursions by Chinese vessels and clarify maritime entitlements in disputed waters. China has refused to submit to the UN arbitration process, insisting that it has “indisputable sovereignty” over territories claimed by the Philippines. The Department of Foreign Affairs is considering a new diplomatic protest against fresh incursions by Chinese vessels in Gavin Reef (Gaven Reef) and Calderon Reef (Cuarteron Reef), which are within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer EEZ.
But against this Chinese intransigence, the Philippines’ flag-waving response appears like a macabre exercise in futility.
The raising of the flag in detachments in Ayungin Shoal, Pagasa (Thitu) Island, Lawak (Nanshan) Island, Parola (Northeast Cay) Island, Patag (Flat) Island, Kota (Loaita) Island, Rizal (Commodore) Reef, Likas (West York) Island and Panata (Lankian Cay) Island played on Filipino nationalist sentiment but did very little to deter further Chinese depredations in these territories. Even as China was making a mockery of Philippine protests in the UN, its flagrant trespassing in areas claimed by Manila have been increasing fears among Filipinos that the incursions are resulting in the gradual Chinese occupation of the territories through attrition, without need of a full-force Chinese invasion in the South China Sea.
These incursions have driven the Philippines to rebuild its security arrangement with the United States, and to embrace alliances with Japan, Vietnam and Australia. All of these countries have military resources to halt China’s grabbing of territories claimed by its smaller and weaker neighbors through bullying or coercion, with a show of force by its well-armed maritime vessels disguised as coast guard patrol ships. As a result of China’s increasing assertiveness, the Philippines signed on April 28 the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), a new 10-year military cooperation agreement with the United States, giving it access to Philippine military bases and allowing it to build supply facilities and dispatch military airplanes and ships to and from the Philippines.
Although the Edca does not grant the United States permanent military presence in the Philippines, it effectively brings back the US military into the country after the closure in 1992 of the US air base and naval base at Clark and Subic, respectively. The agreement was signed in time for the visit of US President Barack Obama to the Philippines and three other US allies in Asia last month.
According to security experts, the new military cooperation agreement between the Philippines and the United States brought the latter back to the South China Sea and shifted the power balance in the region, “which is merely a first step toward restoring stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Philippine officials have said that the agreement comes at a time when the country is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China, and that it would help the Philippines’ efforts “to build a minimum credible defense force.” Military hardware and muscle can do more than flag-raising ceremonies on Philippine outposts in disputed waters.