IT is the unexpected ruling in 2016 on the Aquino 3rd regime’s arbitration suit against China that continues to encourage the Chinese to block Philippine boats from sending supplies to military personnel in Ayungin Shoal, as they did last week, when they even reportedly used water hoses to drive the Philippine vessels away.
Aquino’s US lawyers filed the suit in January 2013 — very foolishly, in hindsight — asking the arbitral tribunal to rule as illegal similar Chinese Coast Guard actions way back on March 9, 2014 to prevent Filipino boats from resupplying the marine detachment at Ayungin Shoal.
The tribunal in its July 2016 “award,” however, threw out that complaint and ruled that the incident was “a quintessentially military situation, involving the military forces of one side and a combination of military and paramilitary forces on the other, arrayed in opposition to one another…”It ruled that such military situations were beyond its jurisdiction as well as of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). In short, the tribunal told Aquino 3rd: you’re on your own there. We don’t have authority in such matters.
The incident last week was obviously China again taking advantage of the award’s ruling. How can the US intervene in such Chinese maneuvers when it had not been declared as violating international law by a tribunal that many analysts believed the Americans had a huge influence over?
The Philippine military, mainly through civilian boats, actually had been able for 15 years — quietly with the implicit approval of China — to resupply the marine platoon (and replace them) stationed at the rusty World War 2 vintage tank landing ship BRP Sierra Madre. The Estrada administration deliberately grounded the vessel on May 7, 1999 to function as its “garrison” in Ayungin Shoal, all of which is below the waters.
For the Chinese, it is a future threat nevertheless, especially if it can be transformed into the kind of outposts the Vietnamese developed using modified oil rigs, as it is just 35 kilometers from Mischief Reef, which it occupied in 1994 and transformed into one of its biggest artificial islands in 2013.
For all its breast-beating over Philippine sovereignty over the Spratlys and the Aquino government’s spending P1 billion for the suit, our government has not been able to build the kind of modified oil rigs to function as outposts in our claimed territories as the Vietnamese have done. A vessel turning into rust has been all our government could afford.
China since 1999 had from time to time asked the Philippines to remove the unsightly ruin, claiming that Ayungin Shoal, which it calls Ren’ai Jiao (international name: Second Thomas Shoal) is part of its sovereign territory called the Nansha archipelago.
The Philippine response had been ambiguous. In several notes verbale, it practically told China that Beijing cannot make such a demand as Ayungin is part of its “continental shelf,” and therefore Philippine territory. In meetings between Chinese and Philippine officials, however, foreign affairs officials have told their counterparts it doesn’t have the resources to do so “at the moment,” but promised to remove the vessel. Even Aquino’s former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, told the Chinese in 2013 that the Philippines was unable to remove it merely because it didn’t have the money to pay for it, to which his counterpart retorted, “We’ll pay for the removal.”
The Chinese for more than a decade had opted not to block the resupply and personnel replacement of the military garrison at the rusty ship as its way of not raising tensions in the disputed waters. Until 2014, that is — as one of its ways of retaliating against the “lawfare” the Aquino government waged against it in the form of the arbitration suit as well as the Aquino government’s belligerent stance against China.
Aquino, del Rosario and their legal adviser on the issue, Antonio Carpio, indeed were so naïve as to think that an emerging superpower would just take the suit lying down when the Chinese were convinced that it was the US that was behind it and would use all its influence to get the tribunal to rule against China.
Unless we are willing to risk a shooting war with China by having our warships force their way to resupply our Ayungin “outpost” (and hope that the US intervenes), or if we are unable to reach an amicable compromise agreement with China, we will be losing the shoal soon. The marine platoon there can certainly survive months fishing for food, but they don’t have the equipment to produce fresh water, nor the medical facilities if required. If worse comes to worst and they cannot get supplies, our Marines there would have no choice but to even ask the Chinese to transport them out of the BRP Sierra Madre — to be promptly boarded by crack People’s Liberation Army marines.
The loss of Ayungin Shoal would be the third blow-back to the Aquino regime’s foolhardy, US-backed arbitration suit against China and its belligerent stance against it.
The first blowback was the loss of Scarborough Shoal, the first territory that the Philippines lost (other than Sabah) since its independence. In that episode, Aquino and del Rosario were fooled by the US — specifically by then-US state assistant secretary Kurt Campbell — that the Chinese had agreed to leave the shoal, simultaneously with our ships. Aquino and del Rosario believed the US official. But there was no such an agreement, yet they ordered our vessels out, effectively turning over the shoal to the Chinese.
The US fooled them in order to prod the Aquino government to file the suit, which the Americans claimed would result in a ruling ordering China to return the shoal. Instead, the arbitral ruling simply declared Scarborough Shoal as being the subject of competing territorial claims, which neither it nor Unclos had jurisdiction over.
The second blowback, and the biggest, not just to us but to the United States, was that it galvanized the Chinese Communist Party and its people to mobilize huge resources — which I estimate amounted to P50 billion — to transform the seven reefs it has occupied in the Spratlys into artificial islands, complete with all the facilities needed to transform them quickly into military facilities. From having the smallest land area in the Spratlys, China now has the biggest land hectarage there, with the most advanced facilities.
The US and its allies could do nothing but watch helplessly as China built up its chain of islands in the Spratlys. How could they intervene when the world saw the Chinese move as its legitimate response to the arbitration suit that threatened its holdings in the disputed area? While it was called “lawfare” by the likes of Carpio, it was still a form of warfare.
Del Rosario and Carpio were deluded that the Philippines could sue China and win, and there would be court bailiffs to enforce the decision. But the international arena where superpowers compete is so different from the legal regime in one country. Superpowers when threatened retaliate.
The third blowback, it now seems, would be the loss of Ayungin Shoal, which the Chinese could transform into another artificial island — the closest to the Reed Bank (Recto to us) where huge deposits or hydrocarbons are believed to exist.
Because of these three terrible sequences of the arbitration suit, I called that Aquino move a “debacle,” which is the main title of my forthcoming book on the South China Sea.
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