BY ALITO L. MALINAO
THERE have been three major developments recently that show how China, using its newly acquired military prowess, is bullying the Philippines as part of its grand vision of establishing a Chinese hegemony in Asia.
First was the Benham Rise incursion, over which Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana sounded the alarm. Benham Rise is a 13-million-hectare undersea plateau off the province of Aurora, which forms part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf.
Lorenzana said the military had spotted Chinese survey ships crisscrossing Benham Rise obviously doing some exploratory research work on the continental shelf.
“The very concerning thing is they have several service ships plying this area, staying in one area sometimes for a month as if doing nothing. But we believe they are actually surveying the seabed,” Lorenzana was quoted as saying.
In 2012, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf declared Benham Rise to be part of the Philippines continental shelf, where the country has exclusive rights to fish and exploit resources, including undersea deposits of oil and gas.
Second, Reuters reported that China has started fresh construction work in the Chinese-controlled North Island, part of the Paracel island group in the South China Sea.
Reuters said that the more widely disputed Spratlys archipelago to the south is higher profile but the Paracels group is key to China’s presence in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, along with Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei Darussalam, has claimed parts of the sprawling Spratly archipelago that straddles the South China Sea. China has claimed the whole area as part of its territory “since ancient times.” About US$5 trillion worth of trade passes through the waterway each year.
According to Reuters, using satellite images taken on March 6, China has started clearing and possible preparation for a harbor to support what experts believe may be eventual military installations.
Third, was the statement of Xiao Jie, the mayor of what China calls Sansha City, that China would begin preparatory work this year to build environmental monitoring stations on a number of islands, including on the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Sansha City is the name China has given to an administrative base for the South China Sea islands and reefs that it controls.
But what was President Duterte’s reaction to these developments?
In the case of Benham Rise, the President practically chastised Secretary Lorenzana for making a lot of fuss about it, saying in a press conference in Malacañang that he has authorized the Chinese to conduct surveys in Benham Rise.
Since Benham Rise is part of Philippine territory, Duterte has no right to allow a foreign country to conduct surveys on the area because this would violate our Constitution.
Known for ambivalent pronouncements, Duterte, however, said he has instructed the military to assert Philippine ownership over the continental shelf “in a friendly way.” He added that he has no option but to be diplomatic because our military “cannot match the might of China”.
Before his official trip to Myanmar over the weekend, Mr. Duterte also said that he could not stop China from building on the Scarborough Shoal because it is too powerful.
“What do you want me to do? Declare war against China?” Duterte asked rhetorically, adding that if we declare war against China we will be annihilated.
Scarborough Shoal, which the local residents call Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, has been the traditional fishing ground of fishermen from Masinloc and nearby towns of Zambales. It is located 200 kilometers west of Luzon and 600 kilometers southwest of China.
In 2012, after a two-month standoff, China’s Coast Guard seized the shoal and drove out the Filipino fishermen. After Duterte’s visit to China in October last year, the Filipino fishermen were again allowed to fish in the area but only with permission by the Chinese who are permanently guarding the vicinity.
The implication of these three developments is that despite world public opinion against her and the rulings of international bodies China is not about to relax its expansionist policy in the region.
In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled that China’s nine-dash-line claim over the whole of the South China Sea was illegal and that the Philippines has sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea and Scarborough Shoal.
Despite its being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which mandates that all signatories must abide by the arbitral court decision, Beijing refused to recognize the court and its subsequent ruling.
But to the apparent delight of Beijing, Duterte shelved indefinitely the arbitral court decision which the Aquino government prosecuted and where it spent millions of dollars pursuing at The Hague.
Another thing that could have emboldened Beijing to intensify its hegemonic design in the Asia-Pacific region is the isolationist attitude of US President Donald Trump who has announced his “America First” policy from Day One of his presidency. This means that the US would give emphasis to its domestic problems rather than the problems of other countries that could include the Philippines.
The author is the former world news editor of the Manila Times.