From the scattered statements of President Rodrigo Duterte and the many barely more articulate comments of those who support his every move, it is time for us and the rest of the world to prepare for a China-led future.
Fine, but will Malacañang please let us have a peek into its strategy for dealing with China’s overly aggressive actions in our territories (claimed, disputed or indisputably owned) in the South China Sea region and beyond?
On the news that China was building a radar facility on Scarborough/Panatag Shoal which Beijing had taken from the Philippines through a nasty ruse in 2012, Duterte said: “We cannot stop China from doing [this]thing…What do you want me to do? Declare war on China?”
When it was revealed that Chinese survey ships were seen at the resource-rich Benham Rise, with indications that they were on a mission to scout for suitable parking zones for China’s submarines, he said: ”So what if they stop there? They admit it is within the territory of the Philippines. That does not satisfy you?”
Benham Rise is a huge undersea land mass east of the Luzon mainland–on the Pacific side well away from the South China Sea–which was recognized in 2012 by the UNCLOS Committee on the Limits of the Continental Shelf as indisputably part of the Philippines’ continental shelf to which it has “exclusive sovereign rights”.
And then he drops a bombshell. He said he had allowed the Chinese surveillance ships into Benham Rise as part of a supposed agreement, which only he knew about. He said he did not want a fight over Benham Rise now because he wants economic help from China.
Those who insisted on raising the issue were ‘nitpicking.’Finally, he said that in talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China last year, he agreed not to insist on the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling last year that said China’s historic claim to almost the entire South China Sea region, which would include Scarborough, was without legal basis.
“I said I will not invoke the arbitral ruling now, but there will be a time during my term” when he will bring the ruling to the table. That time is when “they [Chinese] start to tinker” with the “entitlements.”
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio suggests some diplomatic measures that we can use to protect our interest in Panatag without having to go to war. We can: 1) file a protest with the Permanent Court of Arbitration that recognized our right to Scarborough; 2) send the Navy to patrol Scarborough and if the Chinese balk, invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty with the US, which covers any armed attack on any Philippine Navy vessels operating in the South China Sea; 3) ask the US to declare Scarborough Shoal as part of Philippine territory for purposes of the MDT; and 4) accept the standing US offer to hold joint naval patrols in the South China Sea,” which will “demonstrate joint Philippine and US determination to prevent China from building on Scarborough Shoal.”
Duterte is not likely to seek the additional US protective cover – that would be foolish. Recently, newly confirmed US Defense Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed a US policy that the Senkaku islands claimed by Japan are under the administration of Japan and therefore, included in the territories covered by the 1960 Japan-US Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
Sensible nations should not go to war over this case involving the Philippines and China in the South China Sea. All diplomatic options must be pursued and exhausted to maintain stability in the region.