China’s savage thrust into Philippine waters is unsettling many Filipinos. There is a deepening outrage throughout the land because what we are seeing graphically is no less than an invasion of our homeland by our powerful neighbor from the north. What adds to our collective humiliation is the sinking feeling of helplessness while the violation of Philippine space and sovereignty is taking place right before our eyes.
Malacañang acted wisely in filing a case in 2013 against China’s occupation of Philippine maritime territories at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The court’s decision, which is expected to favor the Philippines, is due next year. China has openly declared it would not respect the United Nations court’s ruling on the matter. The UN lacks the muscle to enforce any punitive action against China due to the latter’s veto power in the UN Security Council.
But China’s iron-fist rule cannot discard world opinion without paying a heavy price. Its huge, pace-setting, capitalistic economy and 300-million-strong middle class of rising expectations operate in a tightly-wired, interdependent global economy. Modern China can no longer live in isolation. In fact, Beijing has a robust and promising economic diplomacy arm that must rely on the involvement and trust of its Western partners and client nations to succeed, such as its multibillion-dollar “silk road” projects and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative which is a direct challenge to the World Bank-IMF-Asian Development Bank investment supremacy. If it violates the playbook on international relations and behaves like a bully rogue state, it will seriously weaken that effective arm. Who wants to do business with a country that regards global laws and sentiments as nothing more than spittoons?
But we should move faster. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin bewails Manila’s decision to prematurely remove the US bases in the country, reasoning that if these were not dismantled, China would not have dared occupy such areas like Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal just off Palawan, which the US military regularly used as a gunnery. But that is water under the bridge of history. The compelling question now is: What can we do to stop China’s continuing invasion of our outlying shores?
Vietnam’s recent action against China’s similar invasion of its territorial waters provides an insight: In 2014, China installed a billion-dollar oil rig deep inside Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone. No amount of diplomatic pleas from Hanoi could dissuade Beijing. It was only after the Vietnamese government unleashed violent anti-Chinese riots countrywide that China had the oil rig hurriedly removed.
The Philippines cannot exercise that option because we have the opposite situation: We don’t have a strong anti-Chinese trait or a militant nationalist sector to play a Vietnam card. Even our normally boisterous Senate, the treaty-making body of the country, doesn’t seem to care much about the subject. No wonder our powerful Chinese community and homegrown taipans have remained very quiet. Beijing knows our internal weakness.
As for our defense establishment, its puny naval force of retooled old ships is no match for China’s modern coast guard fleet, let alone its blue-water navy. It will take many years before we can have a credible naval deterrent force in the West Philippine Sea, capable of discouraging poaching, piracy and outright aggression from covetous nations such as China.
During this critical period of upgrading our military capability, the Philippines needs the help of powerful allies like the United States and Japan which share our concerns and have a strategic interest in ensuring free, unhampered navigation in the vital straits and seaways in Southeast Asia. These nations can provide a good counterweight to China’s growing ambition.
It will be foolhardy for China’s island-grabbing projects to go deeper into Philippine waters. America has firmly pledged to defend all Philippine territories covered by the US-PH Mutual Defense Treaty. America’s pivot or “rebalancing” to Asia is for real because it serves vital US interests.
When the UN decision is issued next year, China will not even have a fig leaf of historical and moral cover to justify its claim of 90-percent ownership of the South China Sea because the Philippine case against it revolves around its brazen violation of provisions in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which both countries are signatories. Our unassailable position is also reinforced by the very constitutions, treatise, maps and official records of the Chinese government, which clearly show that prior to 1937, the southernmost maritime boundary of China was Hainan island, a mere 19 miles from Guandong province.
No government can manufacture sovereignty simply by drawing nine dashes on a piece of paper and dictating to the whole world to accept it. Those arrogant, wicked times when popes drew lines on a map to partition the spoils of competing empires are long gone.
After a cooling-off period, the anticipated favorable decision of the UN would be an ideal occasion for the Philippines to explore joint-development projects in the contested areas with China and other claimants. China will go along with the idea, which it previously promoted, as long as the issue of sovereignty is not raised. This confidence-building exercise will be good for the region because it will defuse tensions. With our political and moral ascendancy, we can then deal with China peacefully and productively, on a more level playing field.
Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81, as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.
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