SOME developments vital to the growing tension in the Asia-Pacific region—and particularly to our Philippine security—broke out these last four weeks but have hardly been noticed by most Filipinos.
That’s because most of our people were glued to the congressional public hearings, the anti-drug and anti-corruption campaigns of the Duterte administration, the relief of Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. over his lies on his American citizenship, the detention of Senator Leila de Lima and her fiery reactions, the death penalty issue and the perennial vehicular traffic mess in the Metro Manila area.
It is a fact that majority of our population prefer entertainment radio programs and audio-visual shows. They, or at least the majority, do not read in-depth and interpretative analytical articles. Proof: radio and television take the biggest slice of the advertising pie, although they cost more than print advertising.
Our population has unofficially (but official figures are lower) broken the 100 million level, but nationally circulated daily newspapers do not exceed five million daily.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask the Philippine Association of National Advertisers (PANA), the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) and the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP). Or independent survey companies you know have undertaken polls of the Philippine mass media businesses.
Anyway, the important developments I refer to are:
The official statement of Beijing reported by the Associated Press last Friday that China “plans” to erect a permanent “structure” on the Panatag Shoal (aka Scarborough Shoal) which is just 80 miles west of Zambales province and within Philippine sovereign territory. The Philippine foreign office is still verifying the report. China seized Panatag Shoal in 2012 with its coastal guard ships and barred Filipino fishermen from entering it. Only after President Rodrigo Duterte made anti-American statements and became more friendly to China were the Filipinos allowed to fish in their own territorial waters late last year.
The AP and Reuters reports earlier, and aerial photos taken by from Philippine Air Force planes, of additional construction of Chinese military facilities, including what appears to be missiles silos in the Spratly Islands (on Subi Reef) just across the Philippines’ Thitu Reef in the West Philippine Sea. (Thitu Reef is within the 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone granted by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the Philippines to exploit and develop.
China had earlier constructed an extended runway and what appears to be a submarine base on one of the Spratly reefs. This seven-isle Chinese military facility complete with satellite communications infrastructure can now be linked by a railway or road network capable of supporting a naval and air strike force, formidable sentry to control the passage of the yearly $5 trillion trade on the South China Sea. It could choke oil shipments to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and seriously hamper these economies.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s statement that the Philippines will build a runway on Thitu Reef because “we are a bit blind in that area.” Thitu has a community of some 110 Filipino fisherfolks, and is across the Subi Reef.
All these above events coincidentally (?) were happening or occurred before or simultaneously as Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang was in Davao City meeting with President Duterte on trade last Friday.
Also last week, Lorenzana said it is of serious concern that a Chinese navy ship was seen—and stayed there for months (exploring the ocean floor?)—at the Benham Rise area which is part of our internationally recognized territorial waters in the Pacific Ocean, more than 2,000 miles away from China. He ordered the Philippine Navy to prevent any recurrence.
But President Duterte said he had authorized China to explore the resource-rich Benham Rise area. Now, expect international and Filipino geopolitical anaylists, military commanders and national security experts to raise their eyebrows on this issue because it involves our national security. A Senate backlash and questions on Duterte’s action, too, in the face of China’s ambition to be the world’s top economic and military hegemon in this century—starting with its 9-dash-line claim on almost all of the South China Sea.
The Duterte-Wang Yang meeting coincided with the current 50th Asean ministerial meetings here chaired by the Philippines and pushing for the final agreement on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (CCSCS) between the Asean members and their 10 major trading partners. Debates on the CCSCS has been going on for the past 15 years.
Last mid-week Beijing announced the “final draft” of the CCSCS is “ready for signing” in Manila. Over the past three years Beijing had successfully prevented through backdoor diplomacy agreement on the CCSCS while completing the additional military installation in the Spratlys—and offering infrastructure financing assistance to all the Asean members.
Last weekend, newly appointed Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said the Asean members and China were “progressing in their efforts” to sign a CCSCS. He did not elaborate nor give details.
The Chinese efforts and Wang Yang’s visit here was matched by the arrival of Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who urged the Asean last Friday to agree on a CCSCS with their partners. She said the CCSCS must be based on the International Court of Arbitration decision in favor of the Philippines that China has no right to claim the South China Sea as part of its sovereign territory. Actually, the West Philippine Sea is for the Filipinos to exploit and benefit from under the UNCLOS which Beijing signed and ratified, but violated. Manila is not claiming the West Philippine Sea as its sovereign territory.
She also suggested the Philippines lead the Asean to work for a regional non-aggression treaty with China. She did not say it but this has an obvious relation to the American reduction of military expenditures under the last Obama administration down to US$700 billion yearly while President Xi Jinping had increased China’s annual military expansion budget to “more than” US$600 billion. (She also said Australia will spend US$195 billion over the next 10 years for more efficient military intelligence capability. The US and Australia have scaled up their military cooperation in the wake of China’s increased “defense budget” and expansion of its naval forces, particularly its submarine fleet.
What is apparent now is that the Xi regime knows the United Nations has no effective police powers against any sovereign state that violates any of the UN rules or international laws—as long as the violator does not recognize any UN agency as arbitrator.
This is the logical conclusion why China has been on a carrot-and-stick binge in its moves or policy—if you wish—to gain its world hegemon status and wishfully replace the US and its allies as the dominant economy.
Beijing has been the dominant buyer of minerals and metals the world over since it succeeded in merging its monolithic Communist Central Committee as the center of political power with Western free market principles and export-oriented economy some 20 years ago.
It has also succeeded in using the Western democracies’ profit-conscious corporations in luring US and European manufacturers to operate in Southeast China’s special economic zones where the low production costs worked for both them and China.
This situation has even led European and American thinkers to believe that China will rule the world and the Western democracies’ empires are crumbling.
But now some international think tanks, financial institutions, the World Bank and educational establishments say Asean will be the fastest growing economic region in the next two decades. And China will slow down in its journey into the future.
Whether these guesses into the future will be realities is uncertain because solutions to any problem in human societies always spin off another set of problems.
China has internal socio-political problems which have been kept under wraps by the political dictatorship. If, for one reason or another, these get out of control, China may even be pushed to wage a war like the socio-economic problems of Germany created Hitler in the 1930s and started the last world war.
Join me in monitoring the developments and watch the economic trajectories weekly, and very closely.
The author is a veteran news correspondent for international wire services and a publisher/editor-in-chief here and abroad. He currently teaches journalism and geopolitics at the Lyceum of the Philippines University and is president of the Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management, a private independent think tank and research group.