• Anchors aweigh for PH balangay

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    WITH what is happening in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Marawi City in southern Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte needs all the help he can get to win the people’s support for a virtual war that forced him to declare martial law in the whole of Mindanao on Tuesday.

    Such support could come from other fronts as well, such as in the maritime arena where Manila and Beijing are trying to resolve their differences in connection with their overlapping claims to territories in the South China Sea, a waterway through which one-third of world trade passes annually.

    That such sense of country can come from unexpected places is captured by a plan of a group of intrepid Filipino sailors to brave the South China Sea on a long voyage from Manila to China aboard replicas of ancient boats called balangay, which Filipinos had been building long before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers.

    “When we cross the South China Sea, we will be traveling on our own to… and almost near Shanghai,” said Arturo Valdez, the expedition leader and a former transportation undersecretary.

    The voyage to China on board three balangay is not a political stand by any means but a commemoration of a historic chapter in the early ties between China and the Philippines, on one hand, and a recognition of an engineering feat of Filipinos and their courageous spirit, on the other.

    “Needless to say, this will be a journey in celebration of our historic ties with the Middle Kingdom [as old China billed itself before the world], a journey of understanding and cross-cultural connections, a journey to bridge common and shared aspirations between the people of the Philippines and the people of China, a journey in remembrance [of]the valiant spirit of our ancestors who proudly sailed [the]high seas long before the coming of foreign colonizers,” Valdez said.

    The trip, he added, will mark the 600th anniversary of a 1417 trade mission led by Sultan Paduka Bataraof Sulu, who fell ill after reaching the Middle Kingdom and was buried there.

    The balangay, according to an online report of The Manila Times, are made from hardwood and similar to those used in 2009-2011 by an expedition also led by Valdez that sailed for 17 months around Southeast Asian countries.

    China was part of the itinerary of the first balangay voyage but the all-Filipino crew decided to spend Christmas in the Philippines after being away from home for a long time.

    Also, the second voyage can be expected to be an uneventful journey that, hopefully, will not lead to the straining of ties yet again between Manila and Beijing. For one, the South China Sea can be navigated by any person or country because it remains an open sea that does not require a permit or other for safe passage.

    For another, negotiations have begun for a framework Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, with China and the Philippines among those that have professed compliance, when and if such an agreement comes to pass.

    The second journey that had been scheduled to begin on Monday, according to Valdez, will be about “tolerance and understanding… something [that]our country needs today.”

    “[T]he waters are there not to divide, but to unite,” he said, just about summing up what the South China Sea should mean to China and the Philippines and all other claimants to the territories there.

    The expedition team hopes that the weather will cooperate and they will not encounter any difficult conditions at sea.

    Presumably, Valdez is not expecting any problem from Chinese officials over a voyage that, hopefully, will again show Filipinos at their seafaring best.

    It would be unthinkable for anyone to rock the boats to China.

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