“First of Two Parts”
VIETNAMESE generals must be rolling on the floor with laughter, at the same time wildly cheering our defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana. The defense chief has been bashing the Chinese and trying to do what the Vietnamese have been wishing for fervently since 1988, which is to drive them out of that area in the Spratlys nearest to Ho Chi Minh City.
Raising the decibel of his rants the past few days, Lorenzana, referring to their vessels at “Julian Felipe Reef”, commanded the Chinese “to leave our sovereign territories.”
It’s embarrassing to us as a nation to have as the head of the department tasked to defend our territory one who is so ignorant of the extent of our territorial boundaries. No wonder the spokesman of the Chinese embassy here, which has been relatively quiet on this brouhaha in contrast to the torrent of harangues by high Philippine officials, said that Lorenzana’s statements were “perplexing.”
Indeed, how could Lorenzana ask the Chinese to leave an area which not only they claim as their sovereign territory, but have been occupying since 1988, or more than three decades ago?
The reef is “ours” only to the extent that we claim Sabah as “ours.” We haven’t dropped our claim that Sabah is ours, just for the record, for national pride, and perhaps for use as a bargaining chip in some future negotiations with Malaysia for something. But no way is it part of our territory now. But we haven’t been so stupid as to protest that Malaysia has been building up its military camps there together with its massive infrastructure program.
As in the case of Sabah, we never ever occupied, nor even tried to enforce our sovereignty claims over “Julian Felipe Reef” (international name: Whitson Reef) and that area there more commonly known as the Union Banks. Not a single Philippine vessel, private or government, has ever sailed to that area.
Our sovereignty there, or even sovereign rights, are almost totally only on paper, which is even quickly fading, figuratively. We officially named that reef “Julian Felipe” only in 2008, while China and Vietnam had their names for that even before World War 2.
Union Banks is that reef formation in the Spratlys where since 1988 two huge Chinese artificial islands and four Vietnamese fortifications are in an area just a bit bigger than Manila Bay, facing each other, although in a peaceful co-existence sort of way.
Vietnam which also claims the whole of the Spratlys, first went into the Union Banks area in 1974, nearly five decades ago, occupying the only island there, Sin Cowe in 1974 and then Grierson Reef in 1978.
Grierson is just 12 kilometers from Julian Felipe, and for mariners practically the same reef formation. The US anti-China website Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, which some believe is a CIA-run outfit, in fact even identified Grierson Reef as Julian Felipe Reef.
Marcos’ troops secretly occupied four of the biggest islands in the Spratlys nearer to Palawan there from 1971 to 1974, as forward military positions to secure the nearby Reed Bank. This was prodded by a UN study in 1970 which found that the area could have massive oil and gas deposits.
Vietnamese generals, probably prodded (bribed) by US oil exploration companiess, ordered their troops to occupy a total of eight islands and reefs in the Spratlys in 1974, a year before the fall of Saigon. Two of these were in the Union Banks area.
China on the other hand physically asserted its longstanding claims in the Spratlys in 1988, when after a battle with Vietnamese forces in March 1988 in Johnson Reef, the Chinese occupied that feature as well as Hughes Reef, both in the Union Banks. It occupied five reefs elsewhere in the Spratlys. Vietnam retaliated by occupying another feature, Collins Reef, also in the Union Banks area, where there now appears to have been built a huge petroleum depot.
If there’s a country that should be jumping up and down as much as Lorenzana rants about Chinese vessels’ “militia” in Juan Felipe Reef, it should be the Vietnamese which has four installations there.
Why haven’t they? Because they know that whether these vessels are militias or not, they can’t demand the Chines to leave, as China also claims the area is its sovereign territory. The important thing for the Vietnamese is for the Chinese not to do anything to try to remove them from the area.
I don’t think the Chinese leadership is so crazy as to send “militias”, as many as 200 to be so visible to an area, where there are four major fortifications manned by fully-armed Vietnamese, with whom they have had bloody armed clashes, in 1974 and 1988.
If they were planning something against the Vietnamese there, they would have either sent their Armed Coast Guard, or their nearly stealth submarines. If Lorenzana sends a Navy vessel to Felipe Reef to drive out the Chinese vessels there, I bet it would be the Vietnamese that would cut it down, not the Chinese, as that area is so close to Vietnam’s Grierson Reef fortification.
The arbitration suit that the Yellows claim was a victory for us, in reality loosened our hold on Julian Felipe and that part of the Spratlys. In retaliation for the claim that China’s reefs were not islands, Beijing “established facts on the ground”: it undertook massive land reclamation on these reefs, including those in the Union Banks, to transform these into artificial islands with fortifications. Vietnam of course followed suit, reinforcing their installations on Hughes Reef and Grierson Reef.
The US and its allies could just watch idly, since China and Vietnam both claim sovereignty over the Spratlys, so they had the right to do whatever they wanted on the reefs they have occupied. Thanks to the arbitration suit, the Chinese and Vietnamese artificial islands in Union Banks are now huge installations.
Lorenzana obviously is ignorant of the huge difference between sovereignty — which China and Vietnam claim over the area — and sovereign rights that a coastal state has in its exclusive economic zone. One day he claims we have sovereign rights in Julian Felipe; the next he claims it is our sovereign territory.
As UP academic Jay Batongbacal who is even a strident critic of China, explained to a Yellow media outfit that sovereign rights, as an EEZ confers a coastal state, is merely a usufruct, or the right to use a property, without owning it. Sovereignty means ownership of that property. Lorenzana is saying that the Philippines has usufruct over the Felipe Reef. But China and Vietnam are claiming ownership of it.
Lorenzana is not just an embarrassment but a risk: How can he be in charge of the defense of our country’s territory when he doesn’t know its territorial extent.
Is Lorenzana aware that the US might be plotting a scenario in which our Air force’s C-295 reconnaissance planes which have been flying close to Chinese and Vietnamese installations might be accidentally shot by some trigger-happy soldiers there, thus provoking another round of hostile Philippine-China relations? This in fact was what the Americans did under a witless President Aquino, who sent a warship to Scarborough Shoal, which we ended up losing to the Chinese after a six-week stand-off.
Before the arbitration suit, we could claim Felipe Reef as our sovereign territory because it is part of the Kalayaan Island Group that Marcos had carved out of the Spratlys in 1978 to become part of Philippine territory. That claim may have been weakened by the arbitration award which implied, as Aquino’s lawyers themselves claimed, that the Marcos decree was repealed by our ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Thus, after the arbitration, the likes of top sinophobes Antonio Carpio and Albert del Rosario, and recently Lorenzana, claim that what we have are sovereign rights over those parts of the Spratlys enclosed by our exclusive economic zone.
There’s a big, big problem there: Although Unclos vests such EEZ to a maximum of 200 nautical miles seaward from our coasts, we have not officially declared the extent of our EEZ, which can be done only through a law. Technically therefore, we still don’t have an EEZ. What EEZ are the Chinese intruding into?
Former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario must have just woken up from his daily siesta when he made the wackiest suggestion yet on this Julian Felipe Reef brouhaha. He said that the Philippines should have joint patrols with the US Navy to prevent China from massing at Julian Felipe as well as in the entire Spratlys.
He is insane: He wants the military of the US, which does not have any territorial and maritime entitlement claims in the area, to patrol a sea region where Vietnam and China assert to be their sovereign territories? Doesn’t he know that even calls by the Americans for joint patrols with its puppet in Asia, Japan, in the Sea of Japan have never materialized because it essentially is a shameless demonstration of the weaker nation’s vassalage to the US?
But there is reason to del Rosario’s madness. He has inadvertently disclosed the real reason why this Juan Felipe brouhaha suddenly broke out, and it has to do with the recent change of power in Washington, D.C. More on that on Wednesday.