TO save its officials’ time, the Foreign Affairs department might as well print a form for its notes verbale against China over the South China Sea disputes, with blanks to be filed up for the date of issuance, date of incident and location of the incident.
Chinese fishing vessels, whether you call them “militia,” and China Coast Guard ships will always roam the Spratlys, the big part of which is what we call the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) and about three fourths encompassed by our ‘theoretical” exclusive economic zone (EEZ). (“Theoretical” as we haven’t passed a law defining it with precision, especially as it overlaps with the EEZs of Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.)
No matter how loud and often President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. cries to the world and the US that China and Vietnam are violating our sovereign rights when their vessels, civilian or government, sail through these waters without our permission, it won’t matter at all, our notes verbale will be the Chinese embassy’s toilet paper.
Why? Because the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam see the Spratlys as their sovereign territory, just as much we do, with their maps naming that area as China’s Nánshā Qúndǎo and Vietnam’s Quần đảo Trường Sa. The entire world sees this area as disputed territory over which they do not and cannot meddle.
Even the US officially does not take a position on what country is the legitimate owner of the Spratlys, and they have repeatedly qualified their commitment to defend the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) as excluding disputed territories.
I have written two dozen columns since 2011 and I have written a book Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception explaining in the minutest detail but readable to the layman the basis of the claims of the Philippines, China, Taiwan and Vietnam. Contrary to the propaganda the US has been spreading, China’s claim is not because of that nine-dash line a Kuomintang bureaucrat in the 1930s drew on the map of China that induced the South China Sea.
It is based on its effective control starting 2,000 years ago, and declared as such in such documents as China’s 1948 Map of the Location of the South China Sea Islands, the 1958 Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea, and the 1992 Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone. Vietnam has as long and extensive claims although we skip discussion of it, given space limitations for a column.
In our case, our claim was made in 1978 through Ferdinand E. Marcos’ Presidential Decree 1596. This claim though was weakened by the 2009 Baselines Law which declared the KIG (together with Scarborough Shoal) merely as “regime islands,” which the law didn’t define. Those, like the Philippine Coast Guard’s very talkative spokesman, who claim the Spratlys is ours because it is within our EEZ are sadly misinformed: sovereignty which China and Vietnam claims they have over the Spratlys are superior to the sovereign rights that an EEZ bestows on a country, which after all came into existence only when Unclos took effect in 1994. More importantly, the often-cited United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea does not deal at all with claims of sovereignty, but only over countries’ conflicting interpretations of the extent of their EEZ as defined by Unclos.
For China and Vietnam therefore, their fishermen have superior rights in the Spratlys, although it has been the Philippines that has been harassing (and even arresting) Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen, until the Scarborough Shoal incident broke out when China moved to stop such Philippine actions against their fishermen.
The Philippines can disagree with Vietnam’s and China’s claims, but if it insists through actual action that only its fishermen and government vessels have a right to be in the Spratlys, that would most certainly lead to laser-beaming incidents, armed clashes and eventually, war.
Ask American help? President Aquino 3rd and his foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, in 2012 went to Washington, D.C. and begged President Obama for such help in the Scarborough Shoal stand-off. They were practically kicked out of the White House.
The biggest fodder for the propaganda line that China has been trespassing our territory is that it built a “constellation of military outposts” in the Spratlys. But these outposts are in seven reefs which it claims is in their sovereign territory they call the Nansha island, which to us is the KIG.
Why did they turn these into ‘military outposts, reportedly reclaiming over 3,400 hectares?
Blame it on President Aquino 3rd, del Rosario and the US which fooled them into filing an arbitration suit in 2012 which they thought would rule that China’s presence there was illegal. The arbitration didn’t, and I have explained these in dozens of my past columns.
But that offensive had a terrible blowback. It provoked China to, as the geopolitical strategy puts it, “establish facts on the ground.” The Philippine suit threatened to get the arbitration panel (members of which it appointed as China opted out of the arbitration) to declare these are mere reefs, and therefore cannot be the sovereign territory of any state. China responded to these threats by reclaiming land right after the suit was filed in 2012 and converted these reefs into artificial islands, with facilities that could turn them into military outposts. By 2014, Chinese leaders with a smart-alecky grin would have told Aquino, del Rosario, and their American advisers: “What reefs? What we have are all islands.”
The Americans were aghast, as they hadn’t thought such a colossal project of reclaiming lands out of the seas in the Spratlys in three years’ time was possible. Indeed the Chinese, with German engineering help, even built specialized ships to quickly dredge and reclaim lands around their reefs.
Did the US lift a finger to stop the Chinese? Of course not. They knew that since China considers the Spratlys as their sovereign territory, they could do anything they want there, except perhaps installing missiles that could deliver nuclear bombs. The only thing they cannot do is to take over reefs and islands forcibly from the Vietnamese and the Philippines if they have their soldiers stationed there as this — in effect a war — is banned by the United Nations Declaration.
We would have turned our islands and reefs into a “constellation of military posts,” but we can’t afford such a huge project. The Chinese purportedly spent $100 billion to build their artificial islands.
The poor Vietnamese managed to scrape funds to reclaim 100 hectares of land in Namyit Island, Pearson Reef, Sand Cay and Tennent Reef. Much smaller than the area reclaimed by China, but still an expansion of their dry land in the Spratlys they have built more facilities on. In our case, we were even losing land as the airstrip in Pag-asa Island was being eroded until President Duterte ordered it repaired.
The only valid question is: Would the nine camps given to the Americans under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to transform anytime into their military camps ranged against China, force it to abandon its (artificial) islands and Scarborough Shoal?
Not by any stretch of the imagination, or of wishful thinking. Even if we give the Americans 1,000 of our camps to use, the Chinese won’t give up an inch of what they hold in the Spratlys.
EDCA isn’t not just a bane — it makes not just the nine camps but the entire country as targets for the People’s Liberation Army’s nuclear missiles.
And for what? So a weak state like us will have a powerful country like the US as a protector? That’s what Ukraine in fact thought, and even if Russia stops its war and leaves the country, with the West saluting it for defending democracy, the cost to Ukrainian lives has been beyond measure. You want us to be like Ukraine?
There is an old Chinese saying: “Kill [or scare] the chicken to scare the monkey.” It refers to an old folktale in which a street entertainer earned a lot of money with his dancing monkey. One day when the monkey refused to dance, the entertainer killed a live chicken in front of the monkey. The monkey resumed dancing.
Of course it’s embarrassing for the Philippines to be referred to as the monkey, but that is where all this “EDSA Revolution” and our kind of democracy has made us. But right is never ever might in geopolitics, and our military is a puny force, even compared to Vietnam’s. The monkey could be the US, which has been rattling its sabers against China over the latter’s threat to reunify Taiwan with it sooner than later. Or it could just be Vietnam, which has had violent clashes with China in the South China Sea.
“Enemy to none, friends to all”? We are the only country in Asean to allow the US — whose leaders have openly declared China as its “adversary” — to use nine of our military camps, which are obviously to be used against the Asian superpower. But we are not an enemy of China? Well, not yet, I suppose, until the US starts deploying its warplanes and soldiers there.
Stop agreeing to what the US says. Emulate the quiet stance of Vietnam, which has no EDCA, which is not belligerent to China, but building up its defenses for its outposts in the South China Sea.
The Vietnamese probably have been the most patriotic people in our part of the world, having fought the French and then the US to be a free nation. They have been standing up to China, even fighting it and losing many of their soldiers and sailors, but they have not been servants of the US to allow American boots on their soil.
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