Second of Three Parts on the Spratly Crisis
Well, he did a few things.
He thumped his chest, and declared that he “will defend Recto Bank as if it were Recto Avenue.” With the US and Southeast Asian nations at the back pushing the uto-uto, he had a case against China filed in an international arbitral court, which would cost us at least P1 billion, but the ruling of which the superpower would just ignore. He tried unsuccessfully for the Asean to rally around him in condemning China as the regional bully.
What Aquino didn’t do is really the most important thing the country should do, should have done a long time ago: To strengthen our military detachments in the nine islands under our control.
Instead, he has even, in effect, weakened our garrison on our biggest island in the Spratlys, the Pag-Asa Island.
Over the past several weeks, high-definition satellite photos had been splashed over local and international media showing that with its massive land reclamation work, China has created eight new artificial islands in disputed areas in the South China Sea. The photos show China building airstrips in several of these reclaimed – more accurately, created – islands, which analysts say can accommodate even the biggest military bombers.
What does this inane government do – or doesn’t do?
Aquino recently ordered that the repair of our airstrip on Pag-Asa Island be stopped.
“The repair has been stopped because we uphold the principle of keeping the status quo in the areas involved,” said Aquino’s spokesman, Herminio Coloma, just the other day. “This is part of our strategy for a rules-based and diplomatic approach where we have filed an arbitration case with the UN tribunal,” he said.
Pag-Asa could be inaccessible
“Status-quo?” The status quo was a fully functioning airstrip, the island’s main lifeline to the mainland.
I can’t believe how this Administration could be that stupid. I am starting to be a conspiracy theorist, to believe that we might have our version of a Manchurian-candidate President.
If the airstrip isn’t repaired, the daily rains pouring on it during the coming monsoon season would make it unfit for any plane to land on. And without that airstrip, Pag-Asa would be inaccessible during the coming typhoon months.
I have been to Pag-Asa Island in the 1990s and was once in a live-aboard dive-ship that tried to approach it. The captain gave up after his divers found they could not see through the murky waters to determine how the ship could avoid corrals and sandbanks that could ground the vessel.
The seas from Batangas to Pag-Asa become unbelievably rough in the rainy season, and while the military doesn’t admit it, it is inaccessible using the existing naval or coast guard ships from July to August. Pag-Asa, would you believe, doesn’t even have a port?
Bigger vessels that could traverse such waters, though, think twice before going to the area because of the largely uncharted sea floor where corrals, atolls, and sandbanks could ground a ship. Remember that even a high-tech US navy ship such as the mine-sweeper USS Guardian with the most advanced sonar had run aground near the Tubbataha Reef – which is much more charted than the seas around Pag-Asa.
Pag-Asa is really a testament to our nation’s incompetence in defending our territory. The recent – 2015 – photos taken of the island are identical to the photos I took when we visited the island in 1993. The airstrip at that time was even made of asphalt; now its just dirt. No additional barracks, no artillery placements.
With the island’s flimsy radio communications with the mainland, we might wake up one morning, probably after a typhoon had hit the area, to find that our entire contingent on Pag-Asa Island had been, for some reason, put on board a vessel and told to evacuate to Batangas port. The vessel, of course, would be very seaworthy, bearing enough food and water – so the occupiers wouldn’t be accused of being inhumane.
Aquino, of course, would rant against the Chinese and call on the US to assist him in reclaiming Pag-Asa.
But what if it wasn’t the Chinese that grabbed the island, but the Vietnamese? They’d claim that what they called Thitu island had been officially annexed by their French colonizers in 1933 as part of Cochinchina’s (now Vietnam) Bà Rịa Province.
The Vietnamese would even claim that the island was ‘stolen’ from them only in 1956, when the adventurer Tomas Cloma declared it as his “Free Territory of Freedomland,” and that the Philippine government annexed it only in 1978. They’d even appeal to world public opinion by claiming that the Philippines took advantage of Vietnam’s poverty and helplessness after the US waged war against it in the 1970s.
No shots fired
No shots were fired, no casualty in Vietnam’s takeover of Pag-Asa.
Do you think the US President can convince the American Congress and the public to go to war – again – against the poor Vietnamese?
And of course, with a smirk on his face, the Vietnamese ambassador would tell Aquino that to settle the issue, the two countries should go to the UN to peacefully settle the issue.
This isn’t such an impossible scenario.
Vietnam is fiercely nationalist. Because it feels that its neighbors grabbed its Spratly territories during and right after their war with the US imperialists, it has been aggressive in wresting control of territories held by other countries, as in the case of their unsuccessful, bloody attempt on Paracel Islands in 1974 and in its successful subterfuge in getting Pugad island from us in 1975.
But the Americans surely will come to our defense because of our Mutual Defense Treaty with them, won’t they?
No. One of the very bad implications of China’s wresting control from us of Scarborough Shoal was that it demonstrated to the world the limits of that treaty, as stated in a November 2014 study by the US Navy’s privately run think tank, Center for Naval Analyses (CNA).
The standoff with Chinese vessels by Philippine ships lasted more than a week: Did the US lift a finger to help us?
The CNA made two conclusions based on this episode:
• “Washington takes no position on sovereignty claims, (especially) those made by the Philippines on portions of the Spratly group annexed after the treaty was signed on August 30, 1951. The Philippine government claimed portions of the Spratly islands only in 1971 and annexed them in 1978;” and
• “The US would not become militarily involved if the Chinese (or any other nation) seized a feature occupied or claimed by the Philippines—as they essentially did in the case of Scarborough Shoal.” The study concluded that treaty language suggests – and as demonstrated by the Scarborough episode – that the US would aid the Philippines only if in the process of occupying and claiming a feature in the Spratlys, China or any other power were to “attack a Philippine naval or coast guard vessel, shoot down a Philippine military aircraft, or kill or wound members of the Philippine armed forces.”
I am of course not saying that we should build fortifications on our islands in the Spratlys to a level that it could fend off an attack from China. We just can’t with the resources that we have.
What we must do, if we are to keep our territories in the Spratlys, is to build up our garrisons to a level that they could pose some credible deterrence – attempt to resist an invasion – in the high-stake game being played out in the Spratly area.
Cruel as it may seem, our forces would have to engage the enemy to defend our territory for us to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty with the US. That would be impossible given their pitiful state now.
Just look at our nine-man detachment in Ayungin Shoal, living on a pathetic make-shift garrison, a rusting landing ship run aground. Pag-Asa Island has, at any one time, just an oversized platoon of 40 soldiers at most, and the rest of our other occupied islands in the Spratly area are patrolled by not more than a dozen soldiers.
We don’t even have the smallest type of artillery on Pag-Asa Island: How can it even put up a fight against an aggressor?
We lost two territories – Pugad Island in 1975 and Panatag Shoal in 2012 – not only because of our stupidity and gullibility, but also because we failed to understand the rules of the game.
We lost Pugad Island (known internationally as Southwest Cay) in 1975 when our troops who were assigned to the area left it to attend the birthday party of their commander in nearby Parola island (Northeast Cay).
On the other hand, as I explained in detail on Monday, we lost Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal because President Aquino believed hook, line and sinker what his personal envoy to China, Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th, and his Foreign Affairs Secretary, Alberto del Rosario, told him. The two claimed that the Chinese would withdraw their ships out of the area if we did the same. They never did.
The biggest lesson from these two blunders is quite obvious: In the South China/West Philippine Sea dispute, and in all territorial quarrels all over the world for that matter, it is not the rule of law that matters, but the principle: “Occupation is ownership.”
But there is a weird collateral rule to that, demonstrated by both the Pugad Island loss in 1975 and China’s recent take-over of our Panatag Shoal: A country can wrest territory from another only without firing a single shot, by trickery as the Chinese did.
But we can prevent China or Vietnam from occupying our nine islands without firing a shot in the Spratlys, if we build up our fortifications there.
It can be done, but only if we have a competent and thinking President.
Instead of ranting against China or hurling fanciful boycott-Chinese-goods threats, we need to do some real work and plan to defend our sovereignty. That in Friday’s column.
FB: Bobi Tiglao