The Philippines must fend for itself in asserting sovereignty in disputed waters that fall within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea, as events of recent memory have shown that it cannot rely either on Beijing or Washington to get its fair share of justice even if the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in July last year in favor of Manila.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) has not been remiss in flagging the situation to the point of slamming China’s future intentions. Its director, Gregory B. Poling, could not be any more succinct in reading the motives behind China’s massive reclamation in contested waters.
“Beijing has accomplished its short-term goal of avoiding widespread censure after the July ruling. But it made no effort to clarify its claims or slowdown military construction, which would have suggested a more long-term commitment to peacefully resolve disputes. It is therefore only reasonable to assume that China continues to seek dominance throughout the nine-dash line, by coercion where necessary,” Poling noted in various papers he authored.
Now, there is a semblance of détente in disputed waters, particularly in Panatag Shoal, where Chinese and Filipino fishermen mingle in harvesting the bounty of the sea under the watchful gaze of China’s Coast Guard, a concession the Duterte administration was able to pluck from President Xi Jin Ping after repeatedly haranguing the US and pledging allegiance to China during a state visit in Beijing last October.
There is this pressing question that must be asked, too late though, obviously, but must nevertheless be raised: Why did Washington not lift a finger when China started its reclamation program and building what is now known as an extension of its military capabilities?
For that matter, where was the United Nations Security Council during those times when it should have been wielding its authority over China’s pursuit of hegemony over the South China Sea?
Now, China is pursuing Phase-2 of its sea reclamation program, while the Philippines plays catch-up by asserting its sovereign rights over Pag-asa Island.
AMTI noted the number of Chinese naval, coast guard, and paramilitary vessels in the area will continue to grow as facilities at Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs—the three large artificial islands—give Chinese assets the ability to religiously patrol the southern reaches of its self-proclaimed territory within the nine-dash line. The nine-dash line encompasses 3.5-million square kilometers and overlaps the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
“China also continues to construct sophisticated radar and signals intelligence capabilities, bolstering its ability to monitor and intercept vessels anywhere in the area, and advanced anti-aircraft and anti-missile point defenses to protect these new power projection capabilities,” according to the AMTI director.
The high-profile visit of Defense Secretary Armand Lorenzana to Pag-asa Island on Friday, with an entourage of reporters, speaks well of how the Philippines conducts its affairs even in matters of national security and foreign affairs, and may be likened to sending a text message to the other side saying, “Hey guys. Look. This is our plan.” Did China telegraph its moves after the Panatag Shoal incident of 2012? Obviously not; and look where we are now.
Nevertheless, the Philippines must make good on its promise to turn Pag-asa into a tourist destination, because it is a vow on behalf of the Filipino people that sovereign rights will be pursued and defended with honor and dignity.
It will not be smooth sailing in disputed waters. Protests will be raised, particularly by Beijing. With the Philippines alone in this pursuit, it is only fitting that the administration, the legislators and the judiciary make a united stand making the vision a reality, not abandoning it when the going gets rough as just another pipe dream at the expense of Filipinos at home and overseas.