Getting away with mischief
With the nation riveted to the congressional inquiries into the Jan. 25 clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, that claimed the lives of police commandos, Moro rebels and civilians, the issue of China’s continuing mischief in the West Philippine Sea is getting scant attention. The oversight is unfortunate because it involves yet another brazen challenge to Philippine sovereignty and control over its territory.
In the latest show of its intransigent claims, China has deployed a dredging ship at the disputed Panganiban (also known as Mischief) Reef for what Philippine military officials describe as “substantial” reclamation work. The activity may be a sign that China is preparing to expand its facilities in Philippine territory, a military official monitoring the area pointed out, noting that Panganiban has become a garrison instead of a fisherman’s shelter, as China originally claimed when it built structures on the reef in 1995 over the Philippines’ protests. Panganiban has since been functioning as a base for Chinese frigates patrolling the area, the official said.
Since Panganiban lies just 135 kilometers southeast of Palawan and well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Department of Foreign Affairs lodged a protest with China, as it has done in the latter’s previous incursions into disputed areas.
But China has studiously ignored such protests and continues to refuse to acknowledge arbitration as the solution to the standoff, describing the Philippines as a troublemaker for calling on a third party to settle the dispute. It has even ignored the informal code of conduct that it signed with other Southeast Asian states in 2002 to stop claimant countries from occupying and building illegal structures in areas under conflicting claims.
Last Jan. 29, in complete disregard of that code of conduct, China’s ships rammed three boats carrying 29 Filipino fishermen who had sought shelter from bad weather off Panatag (aka Scarborough) Shoal. This, barely a year after another group of Filipino fishermen in Pangasinan and Zambales reported that Chinese vessels had fired water cannons on their boats while these were anchored at Panatag.
China’s bullying stance on almost the entire West Philippine Sea, which is said to harbor rich deposits of oil and gas, has resulted in extensive reclamation work on six other reefs in the Spratlys, a five-fold expansion of its claimed land mass and, as the Philippine military’s aerial surveillance photos show, the construction of such structures as an airstrip, sea ports and a three-story building sitting on an atoll and equipped with wind turbines and solar panels.
Against such show of military might, bottomless resources and reckless disregard for international laws and accepted rules, what is the Philippines to do? It can and should continue calling for UN arbitration on the issue through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. It should continue to present its case and raise valid points to the global community. It should take the high road and amplify its adherence to internationally-recognized laws and conventions, and call on China to respect these as well.
With its maritime claims well within the perimeters set by the Unclos, the Philippines should persevere in pressing its claims despite China’s intimidation and bullying tactics. Let it not be said that the Philippines slept on its rights because its efforts to assert these had been met with complete indifference and outright hostility by the other party.
Asia’s emerging superpower—and now touted as the second most powerful country in the world—may continue to reject the Philippines’ efforts to bring the dispute to arbitration, but the world is watching, and watching closely. By bringing up the issue again and again and insisting that our rights be recognized and respected, the Philippines is also showing up a country that does not play fair, as it ignores mutually-accepted rules, steps on the rights of smaller nations, and defines might as right. By its own actions, China is damning itself, and the world is taking note.
Despite the many urgent issues that plague the political landscape, let public attention not be completely sidetracked from this tug-of-war over territory that also defines our identity as a sovereign nation.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.