THE opposition’s allegation that President Duterte has been kowtowing to China on our territorial disputes is unadulterated hogwash, so grossly ignorant of what sovereignty in the South China Sea entails.
After four administrations that just whined to the world over our claims in the South China Sea, as President Aquino most especially did, President Duterte, without much fanfare, ordered in April last year the most rational and realistic approach to defend our claims in the South China Sea:
Duterte directed our military to fortify the islands and reefs that we have occupied in the Spratlys, which we call the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG). This is what Taiwan, Vietnam, China and Malaysia have been doing in the past two decades on the islands and reefs they occupy.
Although under-reported by local media, Duterte’s announcement was big news abroad. The South China Morning Post’s headline was: “Duterte orders troops to occupy and fortify Philippine-held islands in South China Sea.” The announcement was the Wall Street Journal’s banner story for its Asia section: “Rodrigo Duterte Orders Fortification of All Philippine-Held South China Sea Islands” with its drophead: “Philippine armed forces told to occupy all islands, reefs and shoals the country controls in the disputed waters.”
“Duterte said Thursday he had ordered the military to occupy and fortify all Philippine-held islands in the disputed South China Sea to assert the country’s claims amid what he says was a race to control territory in the area.”
“We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control,” he said during a visit to a military camp in western Palawan province. Duterte said he ordered the armed forces to occupy and place Philippine flags on all islands, reefs and shoals controlled by the Philippines. “There are about nine or 10 islands there, we have to fortify,” he said. “I must build bunkers there or houses and provisions for habitation.”
I have not been able to confirm if the AFP has fully complied with its commander in chief’s orders. It is possible though that our government has diplomatically chosen not to brag about our program to fortify what we occupy in the KIG. Or perhaps Duterte is still unable to raise the billions of pesos needed to defend our territories.
However, credit is to the Manila Times for its exclusive reporting in its banner story on Sunday, an article in the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that read: “The Philippines has begun long-delayed repairs to its crumbling runway at Thitu, or Pag-asa, island, the largest of its nine outposts in the Spratly Islands.” (Full article at https://amti.csis.org/philippines-launches-spratly-repairs).
The center pointed out: “Philippine defense officials in April 2017 announced that they would be upgrading facilities at the country’s occupied islands and reefs, but little work was apparent until now. In addition to the runway repairs, a comparison of recent imagery with photos from February 2017 shows minor upgrades to facilities on Thitu and three other outposts in the last year.”
That Duterte’s move to fortify our islands is the only correct policy in the South China Sea is incontrovertible considering the following facts.
Whatever the legal basis of claims over islands and other features in the South China Sea by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia, the unwritten rule in the territorial disputes is that “occupation is ownership,” with the qualification that a claimant country cannot forcibly take an island already occupied by another.
And to strengthen occupation, a claimant country A in the South China Sea has to build up the island it holds, so that it would require so much violence for claimant B to wrench it from claimant A that the world, and the superpowers, will intervene.
Malaysia’s Layang-Layang resort
This principle is most clearly demonstrated in Malaysia’s occupation of Swallow Reef (which it calls Pulau Layang-Layang) in the Spratlys, which China and Vietnam claim. Merely on the basis of its own unilateral assertion that the reef is on its continental shelf, and close to its mainland, Malaysia sent a company of its elite Special Forces to occupy it in 1983.
In subsequent years, Malaysia rushed to build what it calls the Layang Airport with two hangars, a radar station, an air traffic control tower, watchtowers, a jetty, a marine research facility, and just in the past few years, a five-star hotel. It has gradually gained a reputation as a top-of-the-line scuba diving resort, with its official website giving no hint at all that it is in the disputed Spratlys. All international law experts have concluded that Malaysia has no basis to claim it, yet it has been the only disputed feature in the Spratlys visited by the head of the occupying state, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, in 2009.
The largest island in the South China Sea, Taiping island, or Itu Aba, is occupied by Taiwan. When a Philippine firm in 1952 tried to mine sulphur there, the Kuomintang-ruled “Republic of China” sent its troops to evict the miners, and build a Marine garrison there. It constructed an airport in 2007, capable of accommodating military planes, a port that could berth navy destroyers, and four-storey bunkers.
Have you heard of any news or opinion article claiming that the Taiwanese should be evicted from Taiping island? The Permanent Court of Arbitration that favored the Philippines ruled in 2016 that Taiping is not an island but just a “rock.” That of course has been totally ignored by the world.
While the West’ attention has been focused on China’s land-reclamation activities to turn the atolls and reefs it controls into islands, Vietnam, the biggest property holder in the South China Sea in terms of hectarage of its holdings, has been fortifying its islands in the past decade. Reuters in April 2016 reported that Hanoi “had moved rocket launchers to five bases in the Spratly islands within range of China newly built airstrips.”
The reason why China’s moves in the South China Seas has gained more attention, and been condemned is that since it doesn’t have a single island it occupies in the region, it instead reclaimed land starting in the 1990s on its atolls and reefs, and then built airstrips and fortifications on these.
We got our territories in the Spratlys because, much like Malaysia did in the case of Swallow Reef and the Taiwanese with Itu Aba, we just grabbed them and gave them Filipino names. It was President Marcos who in 1974 boldly took hold of 10 islands and reefs which call now the Kalayaan islands, the biggest feature of which is Pag-Asa, claiming — falsely — that no country owned them (terra nullius).
China in chaos then
He could do this because China at the time was in chaos and militarily weak because of Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Vietnam, on the other hand, was divided and was embroiled in civil war in which the US backed, and even fought for, the South against the North. Marcos calculated that the US certainly won’t allow the North or the South to try to kick us out of the KIG—as South Vietnam did in 1974 in the case of the Chinese-controlled Paracel—what with the American military bases in the country at the time playing a crucial role in the Vietnamese war and in the Cold War as a whole.
To implement the “occupation-is-ownership” principle, Marcos deployed a company of heavily-armed Marines on Pag-Asa island, and built an airstrip—the first such to be built in the whole of the South China Sea—that could accommodate C-130 transport planes. That sent the message to the world that he could deploy troops there quickly to defend the island. He made Pag-Asa a municipality of Palawan, which even has its annual contrived elections for its local officials.
What did the four administrations after Marcos do to strengthen our occupation of the KIG?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
President Fidel Ramos in 1995 had foreign and local media fly on Vietnam-era helicopters (transported in the area by World War 2 LSTs) over Mischief Reef to draw the world’s attention to the small fortifications on stilts that China had built there. The photos were splashed all over the world’s media. But did the world do anything?
Nothing. Even with billions of pesos raised through the sale of Fort Bonifacio, Ramos did nothing to fortify Pag-Asa island.
Purportedly to deter the Chinese from occupying Ayungin Reef near Mischief, President Estrada in 1999 ordered a World War 2 vintage ship to be grounded there, manned by a platoon of Marines, to serve as our outpost. That was the most that we did to fortify what we claim in the Spratlys.
Game of shark and winnow
Fourteen years later, the New York Times magazine would publish an article – melodramatically titled “A Game of Shark and Minnow” – replete with photos, narrating the pathetic situation of a platoon of marines manning that rusting ship grounded at Ayungin. The Philippines was portrayed as kaawa-awa, for the world to rally around it to block “Chinese militarization” of the Spratlys.
Did the world help us fortify our islands and reefs? Of course not.
As a smokescreen for his bungling that lost us Scarborough Shoal (which we call Panatag), President Benigno Aquino filed a suit at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration to order the Chinese to hand back the shoal to us and to rule the KIG as ours. The PCA did rule that China’s nine-dash-line did not have any basis in international law, and that Scarborough was within our exclusive economic zone, but it didn’t rule on what country owns the KIG.
Did we get back Panatag? Nope. A better use of the over P600 million spent for our PCA suit would have been to repair the airstrip at Pag-Asa, or even just the Marine barracks that have been falling apart to be inhabitable.
From 2010 to 2013, Aquino had P220 billion in funds at his discretion to use for almost any purpose—P63 billion as Priority Development Assistance Fund, or PDAF, and P157 billion in Disbursement Acceleration Program funds. He even used P2 billion of this for infrastructure in his Tarlac home province and P10 billion to bribe Muslim-dominated areas to support his Bangsamoro Basic Law bill.
Did he use a single centavo of this P220 billion to fortify our islands and reefs in the Spratlys?
No. Not a single centavo. The only thing Aquino did, other than losing our Panatag Shoal to the Chinese, was to rename part of the South China Sea nearest us as the West Philippine Sea, which he hadn’t even ask the United Nations to recognize.
While our Pag-Asa airstrip during the Aquino regime had become nearly unusable, its length shortened as its ends were being reclaimed by the ocean, its barracks dilapidated, and the marine detachment there armed only with handguns and rifles. And while Aquino kept crying to the world complaining that China has been transforming the reefs it occupies into fortifications.
At least in the case of our foreign policy on our territorial claims, change has definitely come.