Second of a series
VIETNAM could be the more serious threat to the Philippines’ Spratly (Kalayaan) territories and maritime areas because of geopolitical reasons.
Yet the late President Benigno Aquino 3rd, his foreign secretary Albert del Rosario — the two who pushed for the arbitration suit against China for allegedly intruding into our exclusive economic zone — Stratbase ADR the latter’s propaganda venue with its clueless head Dindo Manhit, the prolific China basher retired Justice Antonio Carpio and their like have never pointed out that Vietnam militantly claims what we, as well as China, claim.
Vietnam once succeeded in grabbing an island from us by tricking the Filipino troops guarding it.
Carpio has been so representative of this conspiracy of silence. His 2017 e-book devoted to portraying China as an Evil Empire intent on grabbing all of the Spratlys had 60,000 words and a hundred maps. But it had just 48 words mentioning Vietnam as a claimant in the area. Is it just coincidental that the wife of Carpio is Vietnamese, Bach Yen “Ruth” Nguyen Carpio? She even attended as part of the Philippine observer delegation the arbitration’s first hearing on July 7, 2015 — with the Vietnamese observers just several rows away. Carpio would therefore know just how militant Vietnam is in claiming the Spratlys as its sovereign territory. And even as Vietnamese fishermen “intrude” regularly into what we claim is our exclusive economic zone, he has never condemned the Vietnamese as a “bully,” as he always yells at China.
Why are these people almost totally ignoring Vietnam? Before answering this — in Friday’s column — let me provide the arguments and facts why I think Vietnam is the more dangerous claimant in the South China Sea disputes.
For starters, Vietnam is just 500 km from the Spratlys, China is 1,000 km. Vietnam occupies 30 islands and reefs in the Spratlys, China occupies just seven. (We have 10.) The Vietnamese and even most scholars think that solely on the basis of documentation, Vietnam has the more superior claim on sovereignty over the Spratlys than us or China.
Their French colonizers indubitably made the Spratlys part of their Southeast Asian colonies before World War 2 and turned these over to the Vietnamese after they gained independence from France. Thus, definitely much more than Filipinos do, Vietnamese have an intense sense that the Spratlys (Quần đảo Trường Sa) are an integral part of Vietnam.
The US will 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. If China does so, our forces will most definitely fight the Chinese. However, in this scenario, the Philippines would certainly invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty, which requires the US to defend us in case our forces are attacked by a third party.
China knows this, and in the bigger scheme of things, has other concerns other than the Spratlys disputes (e.g., Taiwan) that they’d rather not fight a war — even a limited one — with the US in that area. After all, it was Deng Xiaoping, China’s most revered leader after Mao Zedong, who decades ago laid down that superpower’s basic policy with regard to territorial squabbles: “Set aside disputes and pursue joint development; the next generation will have more wisdom” to solve these problems.
On the other hand, Vietnam, if ever it finds the excuse to do so, can militarily force the Philippines out of the KIG. The US will wiggle its way out of the conundrum: It will claim that it is a fight between two equal-sized nations over territory and maritime areas, over which it is neutral. It is a different case, they will claim, than a superpower (China) bullying a weak nation (the Philippines).
Indeed, the Vietnamese are so convinced the Spratlys belong to them, that they have had a militant track record in fighting to assert their claims in the area. 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.
Vietnam has been the only country to have grabbed an island in the Spratlys that we already occupied, albeit by trickery. In 1975 (South) Vietnam undertook a clever but traitorous scheme to grab Pugad Island (Southwest Cay) from the Philippines, which had occupied it since 1968.
The Vietnamese detachment on a neighboring island offered to host a birthday party for the Filipino troops’ commanding officer in Pugad (Southwest Cay) at a nearby island. They reportedly even let it be known that they would be bringing in dancers from Saigon as entertainment for the partygoers. The Filipino troops couldn’t resist the temptation and they all left Pugad island for the party. No one was left to guard the island. The Filipinos trusted the Vietnamese since, after all, the Philippines was helping their country in its war against the communist North, sending at its peak 2,000 doctors, nurses, as well as enlisted men and officers, called the Philippine Civic Action Group-Vietnam.
When Filipino troops returned to Pugad the next day after a night of revelry, they found the Vietnamese in trenches along the shore, with machine guns pointed at them and ordering them to leave immediately. Vietnam during the night had brought in a battalion of troops to secure Pugad and claim it. It has held the island since, building on it a huge facility.
Pugad is the fourth-biggest islet in the Spratlys. By comparison, the China-occupied Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal that are invoked as examples of the superpower’s expansionism are features above water only at low tide. In contrast to Pugad Island, there was no Philippines detachment at Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal.
If ever Vietnam decides to grab some islands in the KIG, our Parola Island will likely be the first to be invaded, and then used as a jumping board to attack Pag-Asa Island, our biggest holding in those waters. Vietnam was close on the heels of China which started its artificial-island building in 2014, in retaliation against the Philippines’ filing of the arbitration suit in 2013. Vietnam expanded Pugad island and built a harbor, and it now contains 20 buildings to house hundreds of troops. In contrast, nothing has been built in Parola since the 1970s, and houses at most 30 Filipino soldiers.
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 in the suit against China ruled that Unclos cannot rule on “military situations.”
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 turned its holdings into a vast military complex. It has stationed over 2,000 soldiers in its facilities, even on its so-called 28 DK1 (outposts based on the oil-rig design) 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 have 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 just 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 our nine islands and the reefs we occupy 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 with 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 China bashers have blocked Filipinos’ awareness of the existence of this “hidden dragon” threatening our islands in the KIG. That is treasonous.
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