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NYT: “Not if but when: PHL will lose Spratlys”

Forget President Aquino’s oafish bluster: “We will defend Recto Bank as if it were Recto Avenue.” The Philippines doesn’t have a chance of resisting China’s advances in islands and reefs in the South China/West Philippines Sea.

This is the message of the cover story titled “A Game of Shark and Minnow” of the New York Times Magazine’s issue last weekend. China of course is the shark, and us the minnow—which the dictionary defines both as a small fish, or a weak person or organization.

If you haven’t read what is becoming viral in social media, do so—and weep, or get very angry.

Mr. Aquino hijacked P137 billion of taxpayers’ money in the past two years, claimed it was for his Disbursement Acceleration Plan, and used it any way he wanted, including P13 billion as additional pork barrel to bribe Congress.

But he spent not a single centavo to strengthen our first line of defense in the disputed Spratly islands: a rusting World War II-era landing ship, named Sierra Madre, grounded in 1999 on Ayungin Shoal to act as our makeshift outpost in that sea of dispute. The shoal is just a few kilometers from Mischief and Subi reefs, where the Chinese have built forts starting in the late 1990s.

Brand new forts for the Chinese, ours a 69-year old landing ship deliberately grounded on the shoal to serve as outpost. (Photos of Chinese forts from a Chinese government website. Ship imagecaptured from interaksyon.com)

Brand new forts for the Chinese, ours a 69-year old landing ship deliberately grounded on the shoal to serve as outpost. (Photos of Chinese forts from a Chinese government website. Ship imagecaptured from interaksyon.com)

Aquino’s officials even scrimped on rations for the eight-man contingent—one Navy man and seven Marines—manning the dilapidated ship, that the NYT article narrated how one marine had to fabricate out of the steel handle of an old bucket a crude spearhead so he can spear-fish for his food. “The men depend on fish—fresh, fried, dried—as their main means of survival,” the article noted.

In the style of much of American journalism, the NYT article described in embarrassing detail the pathetic daily routine of our servicemen on Sierra Madre—in one photo depicted more as bored fisherman rather than Marines—as its peg to explain the “geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and to some extent, the rest of the world.”

The multi-media article in its Internet version even takes us on a video tour of the ramshackle ship, in one part of which our servicemen had to be careful and use a flashlight to walk on lest the rusted steel floor give away, plunging them into the “cavernous tank space below”.

Imagine the derelict oil tanker Exxon Valdez run by the villainous

“Smokers” in the movie Waterworld, shrink it, and that’s what Sierra Madre, our “fort” in that disputed sea, looks like. It is a metaphor for this administration.

The article’s details on our servicemen on the ship—for example a narration of how one Marine misses his family back in Zamboanga City—make it appear at the outset as a sympathetic account of our troops stationed in a forsaken place. The impact, really, is one of ridicule at our country’s pathetic, feeble situation to stop Chinese expansion in the disputed areas.

The piece reports how Chinese Coast Guard cutters and fishing vessels routinely circle the Sierra Madre, with their crew even taking photos and video of our decrepit ship. Our Marines resort to humor to maintain their dignity, that they could soon “be visiting China without a passport.”

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin ranted a few months ago referring to our disputed claims: “To the last soldier standing, we will fight for what is ours.” After seeing the NYT article’s photos and videos of Sierra Madre that showed it so full of holes that it would sink or at least topple over soon, one wonders if there will be any place in the area in the coming months where a soldier can stand on.

The Chinese just won’t overrun our puny presence to avoid being accused of being an aggressor.

Even as Aquino has neglected our outpost on Ayungin shoal, it represents the remaining shred of our sovereignty in that area. The minute our contingent leaves the Sierra Madre and we don’t have a presence there, the Chinese will almost certainly be rushing in to set up their forts as they did in Mischief and Subi in the 1990s, or at least cordon it off, as they have done in Scarborough Shoal.

This is a very-real possibility given the ship’s condition and given the fact that the area would be inaccessible during the typhoon season, if our big Navy ships, which are very few, are docked for repairs.

The Chinese have even naughtily ridiculed our Ayungin outpost when their Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the Asean Regional Forum last July told our foreign secretary Albert del Rosario that China could remove “that grounded ship” if the Philippines doesn’t have the money—as our top diplomat claimed—to do so. Del Rosario was dumbstruck, and pretended not to have heard what Wang Yi said.

After Ayungin, the NYT piece takes us to Pag-Asa, practically the whole of the municipality called “The Kalayaan Group”, and which is supposed to be our fortress island in the Spratlys. I visited Pag-Asa ten years ago, and seeing the NYT video of the island, I can confidently say nothing has changed there, no additional buildings, no new fortifications. The situation there could be even worse now: “There was recently a food shortage because the last two Filipino naval resupply vessels haven’t been able to make the trip because of inclement weather,” the article reported.

“The Philippines,” the article quotes the Kalayaan mayor, “has done very little to develop the islands they hold, while Vietnam and Malaysia have turned some of the reefs and islands they occupy into resorts that the Chinese would find much more difficult to justify taking as their own.”

And after our pathetic Ayungin and Pag-Asa, the NYT piece then contrasts these by giving us an aerial view —courtesy of our government’s plane —of Subi Reef, where the Chinese has built gleaming-white “concrete multistory structures, including a large-domed radar station, a helipad and a dormitory.“ Around the reef were moored “enormous Chinese fishing boats, along with 50 or so smaller sampans”

The NYT piece called the Chinese’ Subi fort as the “Death Star,” using as metaphor the mammoth spherical starship in the Star Wars movie that destroyed whole planets. Singaporean Spratly expert Huang Jing corrected the reporter: “It’s not the Death Star. It’s actually the Borg from ‘Star Trek’: ‘You (our occupied islands and reefs) will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.’”

The NYT article is one fond of metaphors, which indeed very well describes the Spratly situation. Huang was quoted: “The Chinese expand like a forest, very slowly. But once they get there, they never leave.”

My favorite: “ What China is doing is putting both hands behind its back and using its big belly to push you out, to dare you to hit first. And this has been quite effective.”

There is however no metaphor in the piece using the biblical legend of David and Goliath. And minnows don’t have a chance fighting sharks. After all, in evolution as in geopolitics, might is right

Aquino and del Rosario, who seem to have assumed that the US will defend us with its military might in the Spratly dispute, should read and re-reread the NYT article.

If it articulates US public sentiment or that of its policy makers, we are in big trouble, especially after they have demonized China. There is no message at all in the NYT article that the Americans will rush to defend us when push comes to shove in the Spratlys. “The United States does not have the unlimited leverage it once did,” the NYT piece pointed out.