China warns Pinoys: Stay out of Pagasa
STUDENT VOLUNTEERS of the Kalayaan Atin Ito (KAI) movement are poised to make a second trip to the Kalayaan group of islands. This time, they intend to spend at least a month visiting the islands that the Philippines currently occupies in the Spratlys.
Last December, 48 student-members of the movement visited Pagasa Island in defiance of government attempts to prevent the trip purportedly because “the sea was unsafe at this time of the year” and because the visit could incur China’s displeasure.
Well, the sea—the West Philippine Sea, our sea—was safe enough for the students. More hostile than rough waters were the attitude and action of the Philippine Coast Guard. An officious employee at the Coast Guard Station Brooke’s Point in Palawan decided to fine their vessel, the ML AlShedin, the grand total of P230,000 for various violations that could have easily been overlooked, considering that the vessel was used to serve the higher interest of the nation. Perhaps the Coast Guard can still redeem itself by just issuing a warning. Unless its orders came straight from the top of the totem pole and no one, of course, can countermand such instructions.
As for incurring “China’s displeasure,” the trip did cause some heartburn in Beijing as their spokesperson reiterated China’s “indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.” But in addition to the usual diplomatic expressions of anger over the students’ actions, China decided to send two planeloads of assorted travelers and tourists to Kagitingan Reef, posing for the usual souvenir photo ops in front of their aircraft. This was likely in answer to the picture taken on Pagasa Island of our students lying down on the beach forming the words “China Out.”
While we have difficulties with our own government about traveling to Pagasa, the Chinese are bringing in by the planeload as many people as they can. This can only mean that they are in for the long haul, regardless of what a UN arbitration tribunal at The Hague will decide and in the face of periodic US Navy patrols in the area.
As a result of the announcement by KAI spokesperson, Vera Joy Ban-eg, that a second trip is scheduled for the Spratlys in April, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, repeated the same old refrain that China had “indisputable sovereignty over the Spratlys” and that Philippine occupation is against the law. “The Philippines should increase restraint on itself and relevant parties should not complicate matters,” Hong added.
What about our own government? What did it have to say about the second trip planned by our students?
Communications Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III said, “It would be better (for the students) to have a dialogue and to talk with our Department of Foreign Affairs.” Just what good talking with the DFA could possibly do for the students is beyond me. The DFA is known more for doublespeak rather than straightforward talk. For all you know, it might even suggest to our students that they apply for visas at the Chinese Embassy before proceeding to the Spratlys. That would make China very happy. We are so afraid of displeasing the Chinese or causing them any aggravation, we might as well make them happy.
Allow me to provide some background information on the students’ visit to Pagasa.
It was government that called and requested for partnerships with the students.
It was government—specifically the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Commission on Higher Education—that endorsed the movement.
For a week in November 2015, students from different provinces flew to Manila and were billeted at the Transient Officers Quarters of the AFP at Camp Aguinaldo, through the efforts of the AFP Civil Relations Service. After a few days, the students were sent to Palawan and directed to coordinate with the Western Command (Wescom). Then, for reasons unknown, and kept from the public, the government unexpectedly changed its position, and officials down the line started singing a different tune.
Admiral Alexander Lopez, Wescom chief, publicly announced that the government opposed the trip to Pagasa “because of the perils of the sea” and “a negative reaction from China.” Suddenly defense officials were telling the group to go home. It even became difficult to charter a boat for the trip.
This sudden, abrupt and 180-degree change of direction could only have been orchestrated from the very top of the national leadership.
As of today, China has built, or is building, three runways on reclaimed land in the Spratlys. Soon this new land from the sea will be populated by Chinese nationals brought in by the planeload. Chinese fishermen have taken over the traditional fishing grounds of Filipinos who have been driven away by Chinese Coast Guard vessels patrolling the area. Pretty soon, drilling for oil and gas will follow, including similar activities at the disputed Reed Bank.
Where do we draw the line? Or are we ever going to take such action? This can only be done when the nation has a strong leader capable of uniting the people in what may be a long and difficult struggle. We cannot rely on “iron-clad security commitments from our allies.” For one thing, what US State Secretary John Kerry says today may not be acceptable to a new administration in the United States next year. It is best to keep in mind the example of Vietnam, a nation with a slightly smaller population than that of the Philippines.
For many years, under a determined nationalist leadership, the country has been able to resist Chinese, French and American domination in the face of enormous hardship and adversity.
We must show the Chinese, by words and actions, that we intend to defend our territory with or without foreign assistance and we can start by encouraging our volunteers to travel to Pagasa and other islands that we say belong to us. If we do not adopt this attitude, no one will take us seriously.
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