Fourth of a series on the Spratly crisis
First Part 1: Congress should probe Aquino, Trillanes and del Rosario
My past three columns on the Spratly issue argued the following:
• We cannot rely on international law, much less on an “arbitration” case as pursued by President Aquino’s government, to uphold our sovereignty in what we call the Kalayaan Group of Islands. Never has international law determined disputes over sovereignty. Neither have maps.
• Vietnam’s capture of our Patag Island in 1975 (Đảo Song Tử Tây to them now) and Aquino’s bungling loss of Scarborough Shoal to China in 2012 demonstrate starkly the rules of the game in this territorial contest, which are, first, that “occupation is ownership;” and second, in this day and age, a country grabbing territory can only do it without firing a shot.
With these two conclusions, the most important thing we have to do is quite obvious, which astonishingly appears not to have not even crossed Aquino’s mind: Secure and fortify the seven islands and two shoals that are under our control.
I am not saying we build fortifications on the level of China’s. What we need to do is fortify our islands that they would have some credible deterrent effect that an attempt by Vietnam or China to capture them would have to be through a major firefight. Cruel as that may seem, that is and has been the reality of the world of competing nation-states.
We don’t have funds? But Aquino and his budget secretary could easily commit to provide the would-be Muslim substate called Bangsamoro P529 billion in grants from 2015 to 2020, and that’s according to his ally Senator Ralph Recto’s figures.
We don’t have funds? But Aquino’s dole-out program called the Conditional Cash Transfer, which hasn’t made a dent on alleviating Philippine poverty (how could it, as the program doesn’t provide the poor any new skill nor productive asset?), has cost us a staggering P227 billion.
We just have to set our priorities and give up programs like the CCT and BBL, which, in reality, are intended to buy people’s (and Muslims) support for whoever Aquino endorses in the 2016 elections.
Half of that planned BBL grant if the law is enacted and the CCT’s 2015 budget – roughly P50 billion – is more than enough to start strengthening our sovereignty in the South China Sea. This would be done by building up our fortifications on the islands we occupy, stationing enough troops and civilian populations there, arming our garrisons adequately, and buying vessels to patrol them and to swiftly transport troops, materiel and supplies.
A law must be enacted so that these programs can be implemented through succeeding administrations, with an innocuous title like “Kalayaan Island Group Development Program Act.”
I’m sure we can be innovative in developing our Spratly islands.
Like getting our taipans to pitch in to transform Pag-asa Island for instance into some kind of Amanpulo and Balesin island resorts, as Malaysia had, in fact, done with its Swallow Reef (Layang-Layang), which has become a three-star dive site. That, in fact, had been former President Fidel Ramos’ proposal in the 1990s.
Or maybe Phil-Am billionaire Loida Nicolas, who has been leading a boycott-China-products movement in the US, could put her purse where her mouth is by committing her Beatrice Foods’ profits just for a year to replace the rusting ship on Ayungin with a proper bunkhouse on stilts, like those the Chinese had built on their reefs. Or maybe former Congressman Roilo Golez, another high-profile boycott-China-products advocate, could start a program for public figures like him to live in and man Pag-asa Island for three months as a deterrent to foreign invasion. For losing Scarborough Shoal, maybe Aquino should express remorse by living on Pag-asa after he steps down.
Thanks to Marcos who claimed it in the 1970s, our islands actually make up a prime piece of property in the South China Sea. But we are neglecting them, that they have become easily vulnerable to a takeover by China or Vietnam.
Pag-asa Island is the second biggest island in the Spratlys, while Likas and Parola are the third and fifth biggest isles. Next to Vietnam, we actually had the second biggest lands in the Spratly, before the Chinese went on a reclamation frenzy that converted their shoals to artificial islands.
What was obvious to other countries that have occupied islands in the Spratlys, escaped our government’s understanding: We have very foolishly neglected to fortify our territories.
The rusting World War II vintage landing ship grounded on Ayungin Shoal as our makeshift outpost is the pathetic demonstration of how little priority we have put on defending our sovereignty.
Marcos’ building of an airstrip on Pag-asa Island in the mid-1970s, which required some reclamation work on each side of it, was the last infrastructure work there.
A 2014 book (Yale University) by Bill Hayton, “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia” reported the sorry state of Pag-asa Island:
“The runway… is now only usable with the utmost care. In the words of the (AFP) Western Command’s in-house magazine Kanluran, the “runway is about to be completely detached due to erosion by the sea. In early 2011, a Philippine Navy ship delivering materials to repair it ran aground on the surrounding reef. The armed forces declared that they didn’t have the resources or the skills to complete the job and appealed to the government to fund the repairs by a civilian contractor. Pledges have been made but the waves are still eating at the runway.”
I have been to Pag-asa (1996), and looking at the 2015 photos taken by journalists who recently visited it, nothing has changed on the island. I couldn’t even see radio antennas and cellphone cell sites in the photos.
In sharp contrast to our neglect of our islands are Taiwan’s development of its Taiping Island, the biggest in the Spratlys, which is closer to Palawan than our Pag-asa, and Vietnam’s infrastructure work at Southwest Cay (Pugad Island to us), which it grabbed from us in 1975.
Taiwan started to build an airport in 2006 on Taiping, the largest island in the Spratlys, which is closer to Palawan than our Pag-asa. It was completed in 2008, and is long enough to accommodate Hercules C-130 aircraft. In 2012, Taiwan started a $110 million project to be completed this year that would build two new deep piers, improve the runway, and install high tactical air navigation facilities, anti-aircraft guns and mortar units. That $110 million is “just” P5 billion, a fraction of the budget that was being earmarked for the Bangsamoro.
Vietnam, a country a lot poorer than us, has even changed how Pugad Island looks from a satellite. Where there was no port at all is a rectangular bay that serves as refuge for its fishermen and navy vessels.
So what does the Aquino government think of this?
At a Senate hearing on the 2015 budget, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said: “There is a Palace-ordered freeze in infrastructure work – including repairs – on military and air facilities on Pag-asa island.” The freeze, Gazmin told the Senate finance subcommittee, was meant to keep the Philippines on a “moral high ground” in its arbitration case against China. Aquino’s spokesman, Herminio Coloma, more recently echoed this absurd stance: “The repair has been stopped because we uphold the principle of keeping the status quo in the areas involved” … “This is part of our strategy for a rules-based and diplomatic approach where we have filed an arbitration case,” he said.
This President must go, and the replacement can’t be an Aquino 2.0 or we will lose all our Kalayaan islands before we know it.
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