THE South China Sea, seen from Denmark, is very far away. Yet, Japan views with such concern China’s actions in the South China Sea that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had to mention it in his official message to Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen during his recent visit to Denmark.
This happened as the Philippines marked the first anniversary of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the case brought against China by the Philippine government on the South China Sea row. The nation then rejoiced and took pride in that victory. That was a year ago. Today, many of the officials who were actively involved in arguing the case before the tribunal, are disappointed with the way the Duterte administration has been handling the matter. Others, like retired Gen. Victor Corpus, have taken quite an opposite position. Corpus has gone as far as to suggest that the Philippines should embrace the position of China for the sake of peace and prosperity: ”Why don’t we agree with China and set aside our differences for the rest of the century and pursue a win-win solution?” Corpus told a media forum (The Manila Times, July 12). According to the retired general, China has all the right in the world to reclaim and militarize ”a few barren islands” and some reefs ”to prevent a naval blockade along [the]Malacca Strait, and … to prevent a US submarine strike on China’s east coast.”
Wasn’t Sen. Antonio Trillanes 3rd called a traitor for suggesting bilateral talks with China and the toning down the rhetoric against China’s reclamation activities, and for belittling the significance of the islands and other features claimed by the Philippines? Then President Benigno Aquino 3rd, by sending Trillanes to China, tried to find a peaceful solution to the standoff at the Scarborough Shoal before taking the case to the international tribunal. Trillanes might have taken his mission too far, if we are to believe former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, but looking back, what Trillanes suggested then doesn’t seem so different from what is happening now.
American historian Alfred McCoy, in an interview with the South China Morning Post (February 27, 2017), sees the Philippines’ new China policy as trading financial support for silence. McCoy said the Philippines is giving away its territorial waters to China and that the Philippine military, being pro-American, cannot accept this. Richard Javad Heydarian in a July 14 Asia Times article raises similar points. If we follow the thinking of Corpus, however, the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte is simply more sympathetic to the economic and military interests of China, and, as a logical consequence thereof, accepts and tolerates China’s hegemonistic military expansion in the South China Sea.
It strikes me as a paradox that this acceptance comes at a time when the Philippines finds itself carried by a wave of patriotism—one manifestation being the tremendous outpouring of support for the troops who are battling the Maute group in Marawi City. Sure, some of the contested areas in the South China Sea are not only barren islands but reefs or rocks hidden in the deep sea, most of them quite far from larger, inhabited Philippine islands. But some of these contested features, particularly Scarborough Shoal and some islands in the Spratlys, are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and as such are as much part of Philippine territory as Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. In Marawi City, while IS might be based on an alien ideology and foreign fighters have joined the ranks of the Maute group, we are basically fighting fellow Filipinos on Philippine soil. The extremists have tried to remove from the Philippine government’s control a part of the republic. But which threat to the nation is greater – the Maute group’s rebellion in Marawi City or China’s massive poaching of the South China Sea? Where is our nationalistic fervor when it comes to China?
Of course, the Philippines could not and should not go to war with China. But isn’t there a middle way between aggressively pushing for enforcement of the ruling of the arbitration court on one hand, and on the other, cheerfully deepening our dependence on China while the Chinese government builds up its military capabilities in the contested islands? Dealing with China as if it were our new best friend is adding insult to injury.
We detest it when for instance the European Union ties trade and aid to human rights conditions, but how does that compare to China’s demand that we remain silent as they take effective control of the South China Sea? An old legal maxim has it that “Equity aids the vigilant, not those who slumber on their rights”. The Philippines could perpetually lose its territorial, security and economic rights in the South China Sea by simple default.