Sandy Cay is a Philippine land territory that is being seized (to put it mildly) or being invaded (to put it frankly) by China. … If [President Rodrigo Duterte and Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano] are courageous, they should send a Philippine Navy ship to guard Sandy Cay, and if the Chinese Navy ships attack the Philippine Navy vessel, they should invoke the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty.
— Associate Justice Antonio Carpio
China has not seized sand bars in Pagasa Atoll. There should be no alarm on that, as long as they don’t occupy any of the sandbars. There are many Chinese as well as Vietnamese fishing boats in and near Pagasa Island.
— National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr.
I received information from my sources in the military, stating that since three days ago, China has deployed two frigates, one Coast Guard vessel, and two large fishing vessels, with their maritime militia, one to three nautical miles north of Pag-asa Island
— Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano
The presence of ships alone does not mean anything. … There [are]reasons for certain presence of certain vessels, but the situation in the area is very stable. There is no situation there that is a cause of lowering mutual trust between all of the claimants at this point in time.
— Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano
China assured me that they will not build anything there. I called the Ambassador [when I read the news]. He said, ‘We will assure you that we are not building anything there.’ Why would they risk invading a sandbar and get into a quarrel with us? [What will they get out of it?]
— President Rodrigo Duterte
ANYBODY else got anything else to say on the alleged intrusion of Chinese naval, coast guard and fishing vessels in Pag-asa Atoll, comprising our Pag-asa Island and nearby sandbars?
One more: Philippine Coast Guard Commodore Joel Garcia chimed in after Secretary Cayetano: “As what the Secretary of Foreign Affairs mentioned earlier, if it does not affect our sovereignty, specifically the areas where we have sovereign rights, I don’t think the Chinese vessels are violating international law.”
This public debate must be quaint, if not amusing to China and other states where democratic discourse, especially on security issues, is never open. Certainly, on dealing with foreign states, the Chinese would thresh out issues behind closed doors, then speak with one voice, so as not to enable adversaries to exploit internal differences.
Silencing the defenders
Even more astounding to Beijing is the silence of the defense and military establishment in this controversy. That would be unthinkable in China.
The People’s Liberation Army constantly airs its staunchly nationalistic views through its organs, including the Global Times paper. And every Chinese leader must pay attention to the PLA’s perspective, or face worrisome rumblings.
Yet hereabouts in Manila, the head of the agency primarily tasked with guarding Philippine territory from eternal threats, incursions and invasion, and whose people were cited by Alejano as his source, was mum throughout the Sandy Cay controversy.
The Department of National Defense, under Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, oversees the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The AFP, on its own or through the Department of National Defense, could have issued the official word on what really happened at Pag-asa Atoll.
Yet there was silence from Secretary Lorenzana and AFP Chief Eduardo Año, who did not rebut or confirm Alejano’s assertion about Chinese vessels sailing near Pag-asa, citing unnamed military sources.
The only AFP remark came from its spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, probably in reply to a Malacañang reporter’s question on the Chinese vessels near Pag-asa: “We will work to clarify all of these things [at]the bilateral consultative mechanism,” the regular dialogue between the Philippines and China, covering various issues, including territorial disputes.
What may explain the DND and AFP’s reticence are two unnamed sources described by the Associated Press as “senior security officials.” They told AP that the Chinese navy ships, a coast guard vessel, and 10 fishing boats kept watch on Sandy Cay on August 12. But they declined to be named, because only the DFA is authorized to speak on issues relating to China.
So, that’s why Secretary Lorenzana said nil about the Pag-asa situation, after being so outspoken months ago about Chinese vessels criss-crossing above Benham Rise, the Philippines’ extended continental shelf in the Pacific, east of Luzon.
Where is this going?
So, the South China Sea policy is now run out of DFA, with DND and AFP playing second fiddle. Is this good for the country?
First, the policy reins are still held by one man: President Rodrigo Duterte. And while he plays ball with China, he expects Beijing to play fair.
If it doesn’t, they know he will blow up and just let the Americans back in under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which he has not abrogated.
That’s why Duterte asked rhetorically what the Chinese would get out of quarreling with the Philippines.
Bottom line: Beijing has to show that Duterte’s conciliatory approach works for the Philippines and other rival claimants, too. Otherwise, we all run to Uncle Sam.
Second, close friendship with China would boost the economy and even open the door to exploiting maritime resources, instead of fighting over them. All that would help make the country wealthier.
And more powerful, too. Building up the AFP to better secure our territory demands massive resources. The sooner the Philippines gets rich, the better our forces can defend our sovereign rights.
Then we don’t have to depend on America, which may help us only if we get a bloody nose from the PLA, as then-US Ambassador Philip Goldberg told Duterte.
And third, pity our soldiers. They already have their hands full fighting terrorists and insurgents. Must we also pit them against the most powerful military in Asia?
Or as the Commander in Chief said, “Why should I [let Filipinos be killed]because of a sandbar?”