Part 1 – A discordant foreign policy
“IF rape is inevitable, you might as well enjoy it.” This just about sums up our foreign policy with regard to the West Philippine Sea (WPS). But the inevitable has happened. We are already being raped by China. And our leadership has decided to struggle and complain only half-heartedly. In fact, our leadership has gone out of its way to convince us that: a) we can’t do anything about it; and b) we might as well make the most of the situation.
Others will probably contradict me and say, this is not rape. This is plain and simple prostitution, a degree of perversion that is much, much lower. We are therefore reduced to defining our relationship with China as either rape or prostitution.
During PNoy’s watch, the Philippines formally brought an arbitration case against China’s territorial claims, based on the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ encompassing almost the whole of the South China Sea, turning the SCS into in effect a Chinese lake, transgressing territories of several countries: Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. Our country went to seek relief from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague as any civilized country would do. On July 12, 2016, at the start of President Duterte’s term, the tribunal decided in the Philippines’ favor, saying that China’s claims exceed the limits of maritime entitlements permitted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
In short, China’s claim to “historical rights” has no legal basis whatsoever and that China has violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights. China did not participate in the proceedings and rejected the ruling declaring. According to UNCLOS, nations have sovereignty over waters extending 12 nautical miles from its land and “exclusive control” over economic activities in an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) 200 nautical miles out.
The disputed territories include Pag-asa (Scarborough Shoal) in Luzon and the bigger Kalayaan island group off Palawan in the southwestern Philippines. For decades, these islands, islets, keys and reefs were haven for fishermen from different nationalities containing no large settlements, until one country after another countries laying claim on these territories, either by including them in their national maps or occupying the place physically and declaring ownership outright. The Philippines was not entirely innocent in this matter as a Filipino lawyer Tomas Cloma declared the “Free Territory of Freedomland” in 1956. This declaration triggered unfriendly actions from other countries, notably China.
But we did go to the Hague and the PCA decided in our favor. The ruling placed the Philippines on a moral high ground. This helped enhance Philippine credibility when the governemnt executed a pivot to China away from America in 2016 signaling “an independent foreign policy.” This was regarded as a wise move as this acknowledged the formidable economic behemoth with almost 1.4 billion people as a trading partner and the emerging superpower. The Deegong’s gesture endeared him to China and she gladly reciprocated with economic incentives the Philippine badly needed, impelling the ‘build, build, build’ protocols. It was also made clear to America that our century’s old special relations must undergo changes that must respond to the ever-changing geopolitical realities. But the close family ties will not be broken.
But the Deegong, armed with the righteousness of the arbitral ruling and his preeminence as head of the Asean for the year we hosted the summits, failed to rally the other countries fretting over China’s 9-dash line claims. He instead declared expansively that the Philippines, China and Russia now formed the new triumvirate—whatever that means. This naivetè may just have emboldened China, a bully in the playground, to read very well the actuations of a neophyte in geopolitics. A stern warning that China will not recognize the arbitral ruling and will not back down on the 9-dash line caims, risking war on one hand but appeasing the Philippines with large amounts of economic incentives, on the other, sealed the fate of the conflict territories. Thus, China embarked on a massive build-up of its occupied territories in the Kalayaan island group.
DU30, now deep into his bromance with Xi Jinping and protecting his role as a partner to China and the promise of economic goodies has been profuse in his praise and admiration for the China strong man.
From the time the arbitral question was decided in our favor, China has strengthened its hold on the Kalayaan group in the Spratlys, Fiery Cross, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, expanding their areas by several thousand meters. Hangars along airstrips; underground structures for munitions and essential materiel; hardened missile platforms and radar and communication facilities were installed. Satellite photos from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) show short-range missiles in place and aircraft flying in and out ferrying personnel and materiel. There is no doubt of China’s ongoing militarization of the islands that the Philippines lay claim to.
But what has been the Philippines’ response? They range from the pathetic to the bizarre. Duterte said the Philippines cannot stop China from building on (the islands), adding that he cannot let soldiers die in a war that the country is certain to lose. (Rappler, March 20, 2017)
The President is unable to or refuses to see options other than of a “butangero” in the streets is inured to. Reduce the alternatives into a fist fight or flee.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 November 2017).
And the bizarre.
“Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque even said that the time will come that the Philippines will thank China for the artificial island they’ve built ‘if we can ask China to leave the islands’.” (PDI, 8 February 2018)
In the assessment of one expert, Gregory Poling, director of the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the DU30 administration’s WPS policy as seeking to avoid war with China and wanting Filipino fishermen to be able to fish is “…well-intentioned but naïve. I don’t think that’s practicality. I think that’s defeatist. But the only options here are not surrender or war. There is a whole spectrum of ways to impose costs on the Chinese for being bullies and outlaws, that we haven’t yet tried. It’s a little early to fly the white flag and surrender now.” (Rappler, March 20, 2017)