JUST before US President Donald Trump ordered the cruise missile strike on Syria Thursday night, purportedly in response to a chemical attack on Tuesday that killed 84 Syrian civilians and wounded 546 others in the village of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the Philippine military to occupy all islands, islets, shoals and atolls being claimed by the Philippines in the West Philippine/South China Sea, evidently to match China’s “island building” program in the disputed areas.
One is not related to the other, but both actions seem intended to win much-needed domestic and international support. Trump appears to have scored, at least for the moment, while DU30 may have failed.
Attack on Syria
Trump’s action, which took place while he was having dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their summit meeting at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, killed 14 persons, including women and children, and destroyed 20 to 25 military aircraft, about 20 percent of the 7th Wing of the Syrian Air Force. It had the effect of galvanizing the support of many who had been critical of, if not hostile to, his administration, including his bitter Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and his equally bitter Republican nemesis Senator John McCain. It was the kind of action Trump himself had opposed four years ago when Barack Obama was being urged to take it.
Most of the US allies around the world condemned the reported sarin gas attack, and praised Trump for his prompt response. Only Russia and Iran joined Syria in condemning Trump. They dismissed the alleged nerve gas attack as a “false excuse,” saying it was the result of a conventional strike that hit a chemical weapons warehouse controlled by insurgents. This counter-claim is rejected by the US. However, if this objection is sustained, it could raise the ghost of the “weapons of mass destruction” issue, which the US used to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq. No such WMD materialized. Assuming Bashar al-Assad had used chemicals on his own people, this would have been a crime against humanity for the international community to punish. Not a single American life was lost, and yet Trump acted unilaterally to punish the government of al-Assad.
What happens to US-Russia relations?
This brings the Middle East—and the world once more—deeper into dangerous waters. Russia, which has been accused of using the internet to help Trump win the US presidency, called the missile strike a violation of international law, an act of aggression against a sovereign state, and a big blow to Russian-American relations, which appeared to be on the mend until this incident. In fact, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was more pointed; he said the missile strike completely destroyed Russian-American ties. President Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov pointed out the Syrian army had no chemical weapons at its disposal. Syrian President al-Assad called the strike the result of a “false propaganda campaign.”
A total of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles —each one with a 1,000-pound warhead—were reportedly fired from the US destroyers Porter and Rose in the east Mediterranean, with at least 23 of them hitting their target, according to Maj. Gen. Igor Komashenkoc, the Russian military spokesman. More than half missed their targets, and one missile aborted after launch and fell into the ocean.
Al Shayrat Airbase, from which the alleged sarin attack was launched on Tuesday, was the lone target of the missile strike. The missiles tried to take out Syrian aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, radars, air defense systems, ammunition bunkers, fuel storage sites, while avoiding chemical agents, according to wire reports. Some 100 Russians at the base were given 60 to 90 minutes to clear the area before the attack, according to the New York Times. This prevented any Russian casualties, which could have put Washington and Moscow in direct military confrontation if any Russians were killed.
Syria has no capability to strike back, and there is no indication of a second US missile strike. Nor is there any indication that Trump would move for the ouster of Assad, as Barack Obama had tried to do, against the opposition of Putin, who insisted that the Syrian people, not any foreign power, should decide who should lead the government. This provides some hope that Russia and the US could resume constructive conversations soon, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Moscow in the next few days. For now, Russia has suspended an agreement with the US to share information on air operations over Syria, intended to prevent accidental conflict. A Russian plan is underway to upgrade the Syrian defense system. And a Russian frigate is reported to have entered the Mediterranean to visit the Russian naval facility at Tartus, a Syrian port.
The Chinese puzzle
The unknown—and so far undiscussed—quantity is China. Given the character and temperament of the Chinese, one cannot say how Trump’s unilateral strike has affected President Xi Jinping, his summit guest. Trump had authorized the strike before he sat down for dinner with Xi, and told him about it only before the dinner ended. This seems to me sufficiently offensive to Xi’s moral sensibilities—ample reason for Xi to rebuke his host. But the summit would have collapsed right there and then if he did, so Oriental delicacy persuaded him to save it.
Xi restrained himself from commenting on the incident. He left it to his Foreign Ministry spokesman to issue a carefully worded statement, which avoided supporting the strike nor condemning it. “What is urgent now is to avoid further deterioration of the situation,” it said. “We oppose the use of chemical weapons by any country, organization or individual, in any circumstance, for any purpose.”
Despite Trump’s self-congratulatory remarks about the “tremendous progress” he and Xi had achieved during the summit, my own impression is that we have not heard the last word from the Chinese government. The Chinese have practiced diplomacy much longer than the US, and they tend to be much more deliberate.
Where’s DU30 in all this?
Nor have we heard from the DU30 government. Despite his public embrace of Trump, and his order to the military to occupy all disputed areas in the Spratlys, which now seems to worry the Chinese, DU30 cannot possibly endorse the unilateral strike against Assad without welcoming, in advance, a potential strike against him by the US, for the extra-judicial killings in his war on drugs. Moreover, what could he be telling Xi and Putin when he visits Beijing and Moscow next month, if he endorses the US strike on Assad?
But he needs to send some signal to Trump that he is improving his position vis-a-vis China, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China, but China refused to recognize the ruling and DU30 decided not to assert his rights vis-a-vis Beijing, but decided simply to explore ways of improving bilateral relations while the maritime territorial dispute remained in the backburner. This has worried the US. DU30’s order to the military to “occupy” all parts of the national territory and the country’s exclusive economic zone, and his promise to go to Pagasa Island on the next Independence Day to raise the Philippine flag there, could be one way of sending that signal.
An unnecessary embarrassment
However, the President’s order is an unnecessary embarrassment. Both Defense Secretary DelfinLorenzana and AFP Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año have pointed out that all the nine islands in the Kalayaan Island Group are already in our possession and the Philippine Marines are stationed in every one of them. Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, who has authored an impeachment complaint against DU30, has pitched in to say there are no more islands for us to occupy unless we grab some from Vietnam and China and run the risk of a shooting war.
Twenty-five years ago, I already put it on the record. On November 10, 1992, in one of my first privilege speeches as a first-term senator (A Proposal on the Spratlys), I recalled that the first Philippine troops landed and established themselves on five of the islands in 1968. In 1975, they built a 1,800-meter runway on Pagasa, the biggest of the Philippine possessions, 235 nautical miles from Palawan, 450 from Manila, making the Philippines, rather than China, the first to construct a facility on one of the islands. That same year, the government granted a Philippine-Swedish consortium a contract to drill for oil on Reed Bank.
In 1987, President Marcos issued Presidential Decrees 1596 and 1599—fortifying the Philippine claim. PD 1596 created the municipality of Kalayaan in the province of Palawan, to be directly administered by the Secretary of National Defense or such civilian or military official as may be designated by the President. PD 1599 established the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone. In May 1988, 147 Filipino voters on Pagasa, having constituted themselves into a barangay, elected their first barangay captain in the person of Alawi, a Muslim Filipino. This completed Kalayaan’s political integration into the Philippine archipelagic state.
Militarization not the answer
It was therefore funny for DU30 to suggest that the islands be occupied. General Año has since tried to save the President from his mistake by saying that the AFP would now modernize its presence on the islands. He did not say exactly what this means. China has tried to transform some of the islands and maritime features in the South China Sea into the equivalent of “aircraft carriers”—can we afford to do the same? Do we have the necessary means? In my view, militarization, whether by the Philippines or by China, is not the answer to the problem of competing sovereign claims in the area; demilitarization is.
Aside from ordering the military to “occupy” the already occupied islands, DU30 said he would now rename Benham Rise, the vast undersea region that forms part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf near Aurora province, as “Philippine Ridge” to show that it belongs to the Philippines. Renaming streets, towns, ports, airports, state colleges, waterways, seas has long become the passion of politicians. After renaming part of the South China Sea as “West Philippine Sea,” without following the international protocols associated with it, renaming Benham Rise cannot be a major step. Even China says Benham Rise belongs to the Philippines, and one newspaper was “pushing an open door” when it reported, “China won’t claim Benham Rise.”
Under Article 77 of the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982, as explained by former Solicitor General and Justice Minister Estelito Mendoza in his primer, “The Ocean Space or the Maritime Area of the Philippines,” the coastal state exercises sovereign rights over the continental shelf (which means the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin) for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources. These rights are “exclusive,” and do not depend on occupation, effective or notional, or on any express proclamation. If the coastal state does not explore the continental shelf or exploit its natural resources, no one else may do so without its express consent.
Since Benham Rise is not in dispute, there is no need for any pompous pronouncements about it. DU30 makes enough inane pronouncements every day, as when he says, “the Catholic Church will be gone in 30 years,” among other things. He should never speak again without thinking first, unless his life or his political career depended on it.