VIETNAM rocked what would have been the normally uneventful meeting of Asean foreign ministers last week by unexpectedly asking the body to include in its communique its concern over “island building and militarization” in the South China Sea, an obvious reference to China’s building of installations on the seven reefs it controls.
China was livid, with its Foreign Minister Wang Yi telling reporters: “At this time, if you ask who is carrying out reclamation, it is definitely not China—perhaps it is the country that brings up the issue that is doing it.” Everyone knew he was referring to Vietnam.
While the Asean foreign ministers thumbed down the Vietnamese proposal, China’s retort drew attention to the other major player in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea: the fiercely nationalistic Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Vietnam in fact could even be the more serious threat to our claimed territories in the Spratly archipelago.
There are three reasons why I am advancing such a thesis, as it is important for us to have a foreign policy based on the reality that the South China Sea territorial dispute is more complicated than the China-is-an-evil-expansionist-bully narrative of the very pro-American former Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario and his de facto propagandist, Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
First, there is a precedent for Vietnam’s treachery and aggression, its grabbing of territory we had been occupying for several years in 1975. The strongman Ferdinand Marcos had claimed Northeast Cay and the nearby Southwest Cay in 1971 (as well as all other islands and reefs in the Spratly island group), stationed Marines there, and named them Parola and Pugad islands, respectively,
In 1975 though, Vietnam undertook a bold but traitorous scheme to grab Pugad island from us.
The Vietnamese detachment in a nearby island offered in 1975 to host our troops’ commanding officer’s birthday party in Parola, and reportedly even let it be known that they would be bringing dancers from Saigon as entertainment.
Our troops couldn’t resist the temptation and they all left Pugad for the party. They trusted the Vietnamese since, after all, the Philippines helped their country (this was months before the country fell to the communists) in its war against the communist North, sending at its peak 2,000 doctors, nurses, as well as enlisted men and officers, called the Philippine Civic Action Group-Vietnam.
However, when the troops returned to Pugad island the next day after a night of revelry, they found the Vietnamese in trenches along the shores, pointing their machine guns at them, and ordering them to leave immediately. Apparently, Vietnam had during the night brought in a battalion of troops to secure Pugad to claim it.
Since 1975, we’ve basically done nothing with our Parola island, except to continue stationing two squads of Marines there, since the minute it is left unoccupied, the Vietnamese just five kilometers away in Pugad would occupy it. In contrast, Vietnam has reclaimed seven hectares around Pugad, and built a bay to accommodate even military vessels.
Pugad is the fourth biggest islet in the Spratlys. In comparison, the China-occupied Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal that are invoked as examples of the superpower’s expansionism—are mostly underwater features. Although we had claimed Mischief as part of our Kalayaan Island Group in 1978, we had never occupied it. We lost Scarborough Shoal because of President Aquino’s provocation, and subsequent bungling of the episode.
To be fair to the Vietnamese though, they grabbed Southwest Cay from us because of their firm belief that it is an incontrovertible fact that they own it as well as the the entire Spratly island group. Indeed, most experts on the South China Sea dispute agree with them, that Vietnam has the superior legal claim to what we call the Kalayaan Island Group. This constitutes the second reason why Vietnam is a major threat to us.
It was the French colonial government in what was then Indochina that sent its naval troops to this area in 1933, and formally annexed it, and this is—as the French have been wont to do—so well documented nobody disputes it. When France was defeated by the Vietnamese in 1955, the colonial master formally turned over all of its claimed territory, including the Spratly archipelago to its former colony.
And our claim to the Spratlys? Obviously taking advantage that Vietnam was deep in its civil war at the time, and most probably using his ace that the Philippines was the American base for its military involvement in that war, Marcos ordered Marines in 1971 to occupy the Spratlys, and named it the Kalayaan Island Group, especially its biggest island which he named Pag-asa. Marcos formalized this occupation when he issued Proclamation 1596 in 1978 declaring the group of islands as a municipality of Palawan.
The proclamation was justified on the ground that the island group “[does]not legally belong to any state or nation” since “claims (by other nations) have lapsed by abandonment.” That was hogwash of course., as both Vietnam and China had claimed dit back in the 1930s. For the Vietnamese, therefore they merely took back quickly what the Filipinos land-grabbed.
Marcos ordered built in 1975 a military-grade airstrip that could accommodate C-130 cargo planes. That was the first airstrip – and a military one – to be built in the disputed South China Sea. Other claimants followed our precedent: Vietnamese built an airstrip in 1976 on Spratly island (not to be confused with the Spratly island group), Malaysia in 1995 on Swallow Reef, and Taiwan in 2007 on Taiping island.
When did the Chinese build its airstrips on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs? Last year.
A third reason why Vietnam is a more serious threat to our Spratly territories is geopolitical. The US would definitely do all it can to stop China if ever it forcibly occupies our Kalayaan Island Group, as a way of putting in check the emerging Asian superpower. It has also manipulated global public opinion to portray China as an expansionist bully, and no US President can just stand idly by in such an event, lest the American people overthrow him.
On the other hand, Vietnam, if ever it finds the excuse to do so, can forcibly force us out of the Kalayaan Islands, with the US remaining neutral on grounds that it is a fight among nations of the same size, and that Vietnam, unlike China, has no plans to control the entire South China Sea and its crucial sea lanes. Indeed, the Vietnamese have such militant track record in fighting for its sovereignty: it battled with the more powerful China in its attempts to occupy the Paracel islands in 1974 and the Johnson Reef in 1988, resulting in over a hundred Vietnamese troops killed.
The US and its press, as well as the Philippines during the previous Aquino administration, had been portraying China as an expansionist bully building military installations in the Spratlys, in order to prepare for its takeover of the region. The situation is more complicated than what the American lackeys in our nation portray.
Vietnam has cleverly managed to conceal from public cynosure that in the past several years it had reclaimed land and built its own installations on the reefs it occupies. While China’s installations are much bigger, these number only seven, which are the only areas—all reefs—it controls in the Spratlys.
In comparison, the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI)—a unit of the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies—in an article posted on its website last week reported: “Vietnam has 40 or 50 outposts spread across 27 features.” The AMTI on its website posted satellite images of the Vietnamese facilities built on their reefs, several of which I am posting in the internet version of this column.
I wonder why in his 60,000-word e-book on the South China Sea dispute that had a hundred maps and 105 images that pilloried China, Justice Carpio wrote only 48 words on Vietnam’s involvement in the South China Sea, considering that his wife is Vietnamese.
The longer version of the Chinese idiom, made famous by that movie, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is from a poem of the ancient poet Yu Xin which reads: “Behind the rock in the dark likely hides a tiger, and the coiling giant root resembles a crouching dragon.” Among its many interpretations, I find one very logical: ”The tiger, a real one, is crouched ready to pounce on a prey, who instead sees an unreal dragon.”
Because of Filipinos’ deep-seated, centuries-old anti-Chinese bias, they only see China as the dragon-aggressor, while Vietnam could be the tiger poised to pounce on us.
Satellite images of Vietnam’s South China Sea facilities (From https://amti.csis.org/vietnam-builds-remote-outposts, which has more photos.):
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