VIETNAM could be the more serious threat to the Philippines’ Spratly territories because of geopolitical reasons. Yet the present Marcos administration which appears to be worried over China’s alleged aggressiveness hasn’t even bothered to look into this reality.
The US would definitely do all it can to stop China if ever it forcibly occupies the features in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) that the Philippines controls.
After announcing to the world in 2009 that the US’ euphemistically termed “Pivot to Asia” program is intended to stop China’s expansionism in the South China Sea (SCS), no American President can stand idly if the Chinese grabs other countries’ territories in that troubled sea.
On the other hand, Vietnam, if ever it finds the excuse to do so, can militarily force the Philippines out of the KIG, with the US likely to do nothing, on the ground that this is a fight between two equal-sized nations over a territorial and maritime-area dispute it is neutral over.
Indeed, the Vietnamese have had a militant track record in fighting to assert their claims in the SCS: Vietnam battled with China for control of the Paracel Islands in 1974 and Johnson Reef in 1988, resulting in about 140 Vietnamese troops being killed.
If Vietnam undertakes a military operation, such as a blockade of our features in the SCS where we have outposts, the Philippines cannot run to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), as the arbitration award pointed out that it cannot rule on military situations, as I explain below.
Vietnam has cleverly managed to conceal from public cynosure that in the past several years it had reclaimed land to build up its islands’ areas and made its holdings a vast military complex. It has stationed over 2,000 soldiers in its facilities, even on its 28 DK1 rigs in the middle of the sea. The Philippines has only 72 soldiers in the nine features it occupies in the Spratlys — a figure Aquino 3rd’s American lawyers revealed to the world, in a breach of Philippine national security secrets.
Vietnam has its Naval Commando Regiment (No. 811) based in Cam Ranh Bay which regularly undertakes operations in the Spratlys that simulate its invasion of other countries’ holdings. The regiment consists of four marine battalions, two armor battalions, two artillery battalions, one anti-aircraft gun battalion, as well as one engineer company, one signal company and one surveillance company. Its equipment mainly includes amphibious tanks, armored vehicles, mortars, cannons, recoilless rifles and anti-aircraft guns. Despite the US’ close surveillance of Chinese activities in the Spratlys, there has been no report of their having such an invasion force trained for that area.
The US and the world had long ago officially declared a hands-off policy over the territorial and maritime disputes in the Spratlys. If hostilities break out between the Philippines and Vietnam, the US and the world will likely distance themselves from the fray, and merely appeal for a cessation of hostilities. Such cessation of hostilities, however, would likely occur after Vietnam has already occupied the country’s nine islands and reefs in the area, as they are militarily positioned and prepared to do so quickly. As happened in recent history, most notably in Israel after its Six Day War against Arab countries — those territories captured in wars aren’t returned to their original owners.
There is a Chinese poem a line of which reads: “Behind the rock in the dark likely hides a tiger, and the coiling giant root resembles a crouching dragon.” Among its many interpretations, one is relevant to the SCS disputes: “The tiger, the real one, is crouched ready to pounce on a prey, who instead sees an unreal dragon.” Vietnam is the tiger, and China was portrayed by the Aquino 3rd regime as the dragon, which however is merely the “illusion of a root.”
The late President Aquino 3rd and his foreign secretary had blocked from Filipinos’ consciousness the existence of this “hidden dragon.” The arbitration suit against China they filed in 2013 had nothing to do with the Philippines’ attempt to assert its sovereignty over that of the other claimants. One of its real aims was it functioned as a smokescreen for their blunder in losing in 2012 Scarborough Shoal in a stand-off with the Chinese.
And who would you bet, if the US is forced to support in a covert way if a conflict breaks out between Vietnam and the Philippines?
The arbitration award issued in 2016 actually placed the Philippines in a situation of clear and present danger: It has made the country vulnerable to Chinese or Vietnamese military operations to control the Philippines’ occupied features in the KIG.
This is because Aquino 3rd’s lawyers asked the tribunal to rule as illegal Chinese ships’ attempts in May 2013 to block Philippine vessels from providing supplies to the Philippines’ 12-man Marine detachment stationed in the BRP Sierra Madre wreck, in Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal, 290 kilometers from the Palawan coastline.
The vessel was deliberately grounded there in 1999 by the Philippine Navy during President Joseph Estrada’s term as an attempt to establish some form of visible physical control of what the Philippines claims is part of its KIG. China calls it Ren’ai Jiao and claims this is part of its Nansha archipelago.
The arbitration panel’s ruling was shocking for the suit’s proponents:
“Although, as far as the tribunal is aware, these vessels were not military vessels, China’s military vessels have been reported to have been in the vicinity. In the tribunal’s view, this represents 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… Accordingly, the Tribunal finds that it lacks jurisdiction to consider the Philippines’ Submissions No. 14(a) to (c). (Page 456 of Award).” (Italics mine.)
The implication of this ruling is very dangerous to the Philippines. It means that any Chinese or Vietnamese use of some sort of military force — for example, a blockade of Pag-asa island to limit entry of supplies to the Filipino troops stationed there — falls outside the jurisdiction of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
The arbitration ruling was the first time any kind of international tribunal has declared this so. While it did not participate in the arbitration and rejected it, China and Vietnam are now well apprised that in case they decide to undertake military operations to seize Philippine territory (short of a shooting war), as in a blockade, the Philippines cannot invoke Unclos to resist it.
(This column is based on a chapter in my 2022 book “Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception,” now available, other than in www.rigobertotiglao.com/shop and amazon.com, at Fully Booked stores.)
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