OR perhaps Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana was just fed the wrong information or just ignorant of the Spratly Islands dispute, when he claimed last April 1 that the Chinese had built new illegal structures at Union Banks (Pagkakaisa Banks to us).
This is the reef complex where the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) is, that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana claimed on March 21, 2021, the “Chinese militia vessels” had been massing.
Lorenzana’s claim was ignored by other claimant states, even by Vietnam which has four installations built on reefs in the area: it is common knowledge that Chinese fishing fleets normally mass to seek refuge from storms in that area because its boomerang shape provides an ideal shield from tidal and storm surges.
Sobejana, in a statement on April 1 through the government’s Philippine News Agency, announced: “During a patrol March 30, we were able to document man-made structures that were built on some of the features. These structures are illegal.” Sobejana didn’t disclose whether it was a Navy vessel or an Air Force reconnaissance plane that undertook the patrol.
“The Law of the Sea gives the Philippines indisputable and exclusive rights over the area,” he declared, blissfully ignorant that China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia are also claiming that area, the first three as their sovereign territory, and not just as their exclusive economic zone.
Other claimant states were alarmed over Sobejana’s claim that there were new structures as this could mean renewed Chinese construction work on their reefs, which ended in 2016.
Ironically, it was the US-based hi-tech firm Simularity Corp., which first provided US intelligence with its photos of vessels massing at Julian Felipe which was given to the AFP, that belied Sobejana’s claim.
Obviously surprised at his allegations, as this means a major alarming development in the area — which it had not reported, and therefore meant it had been negligent in its monitoring contract — Simularity obtained new photos from the European Space Agency (which were expensive) and compared these to images from another entity, Airbus Defense and Space, one of the top defense companies in the globe.
Simularity noted that the study was necessary because of “reports of man-made structures by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.” It meticulously compared satellite photos taken October 2020 to those taken January to April 2021, enhanced by its high-tech, artificial intelligence technology, of the six installations.
It reported these as the Hughes and Johnson South reefs which China first took possession of in 1988; Grierson, Landsdowne and Collins reefs that Vietnam occupied in 1988, as well as Sin Cowe island, taken in 1974.
No new structures
Simularity found no new structures built in all of the six installations. If there were changes, it said, these may have been temporary or minor structures built or even buildings removed. Some structures were even removed.
For example, the image accompanying this column is a sample of its conclusion, in this case, of Hughes Reef and Sin Cowe island, that there were no “new illegal structures” as the AFP Chief of Staff has claimed.
Either informed of the Simularity study or told by their US intelligence contacts of Sobejana’s boo-boo, an AFP general officially denied the claim of his boss.
As Sobejana obviously was not man enough to correct himself, it was AFP spokesman Marine Maj. Gen. Edgar Arevalo who issued a statement on April 3 through the state-owned PNA “clarifying” although in a confusing, we-are-not-really-denying-it way: “Except for five past recorded constructions in the Union Banks – two of which were by the Chinese and three by the Vietnamese – we have observed no new construction.” The PNA report was not taken up by other media though, here or abroad.
Defense Secretary Lorenzana actually demonstrated similar intellectual dishonesty – more accurately described by the Filipino word palusot – when he boasted the other day that China had reduced its maritime militia vessels from 200 to just 32 because they obeyed his request to do so.
The People’s Liberation Army, which supervises the maritime militia, bowed to the will of the Philippine defense secretary?
Didn’t it cross Lorenzana’s mind that the vessels have been gradually moving out of the reef to do what they do, which is fishing, as they were there only to evade a storm – as the Chinese had been claiming all along? Or perhaps we should congratulate Lorenzana for having been secretly in touch with the Chinese since December. Simularity’s photos showed Chinese vessels at Whitsun reef in December 2020 but in February 2021, there were none. Lorenza also requested them to leave?
Lorenzana is starting to sound like Aquino 3rd’s foreign affairs secretary and top Sinophobe Albert del Rosario, his boss from 2002- to 2004 at our Washington embassy where he was military attaché.
Lorenzana’s boast that he fended off Chinese intrusion into “our territory” is hilarious if not for the following very serious developments:
March 21 to March 29: Lorenzana condemns China for deploying 200 Chinese maritime militias in Whitsun Reef. He issues other statements demanding the vessels leave the reef claiming it is the Philippines “sovereign territory.”
He never mentions that the Union Banks area where the reef is has been occupied, starting in 1974 by the Vietnamese and then by the Chinese in 1988, both of which had built huge artificial islands on the islands and reefs they have occupied. He even declared he would send the Navy to the area, and ordered an Air Force plane to approach Vietnamese and Chinese fortifications there. The foreign affairs secretary, who is supposed to be a diplomat, issues an angry note verbale to protest the intrusion as if he were posting tweets.
March 31: US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan calls his counterpart here and in effect warns the Philippines of armed conflict emerging out of the Whitsun Reef issue. He assured National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon that the US has our back because of the Mutual Defense Treaty.
Arpil 1: The Armed Forces Chief of Staff claims an Air Force reconnaissance plane found “new illegal structures” at Union Banks.
April 4: US State Department secretary sends the same message as the national security adviser; “An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”
April 9: ABS-CBN’s main owner Gabby Lopez allegedly lets the network’s reporter and camera crew use his expensive yacht to sail at its maximum speed to the Mischief Reef area, for its reporter to interview Filipino fishermen there on how they are. A Chinese Coast Guard vessel asks them who they were, and approaches. The yacht’s captain insists they leave right away. The ABS-CBN reporter claims they were subsequently driven away by another ship, a smaller but “missile-equipped vessel.”
I don’t think these events occurred without connection to each other.
And what’s the most important development happening in the Philippines all this while?
The Covid-19 pandemic has surged here and abroad, and it is turning out that poorer countries like us, Indonesia and Brazil would have to rely on Chinese vaccines, as the US has openly announced it can’t share one dose of its cache with any other country.
With that, it would be extremely difficult for President Biden to undertake what he has announced as one of his prime foreign policy thrusts, which is to renew his predecessor Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”, a thinly disguised campaign to demonize China in our part of the world.
Except of course if one navy officer of Sobejana’s mindset were to take seriously Lorenzana’s admonition to patriotically defend our territories in an area occupied by China, and engages the Chinese in battle.
That would be a dream scenario for the US especially at this time. But it could of course turn into a nightmare for the whole world.