TO be honest, I was a bit shocked that Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. conducted the government’s press conference on the Ayungin Shoal incident. It was conducted in a Palace room, near the Office of the President, but the President wasn’t there, nor even the Foreign Affairs secretary.
With Teodoro were mostly security officials and the military’s top brass, including the new Armed Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr.
Are we at war with China now as a result of the Ayungin incident in which the Chinese blocked our Navy and Coast Guard’s attempts to supply the marine contingent living in the grounded BRP Sierra Madre? If you ask military men what to do about a certain problem, what do you think you will get?
Having a Defense secretary as the main spokesman for a government over an incident that could, at the very least, damage our relations with a foreign nation is itself a huge red signal telling the other nation: “Go ahead, we’re ready for you.” Has China’s defense chief ever conducted a press conference invoking any other country, even the US?
Even if President Aquino 3rd started the country’s anti-China “pivot,” his Defense secretary, Voltaire Jazmin, was never at the forefront of the conflict with China. It was his Foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, who always blah-blahed against it. Duterte’s Defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, knew, of course, that defense secretaries, except in a war, never talk about an adversary nation.
Teodoro’s statements and even facial expressions were even worse as if he were in a fit of rage that People’s Liberation Army commandos had taken over Pag-asa, our biggest outpost in the Spratlys. He struck me as even mimicking the Israeli prime minister and his defense secretary’s rage over Hamas’ brutal attacks. Was it for show, building the brand “Gibo, PH defender”?
Teodoro raged: “China’s action was a blatant violation of international law. It has no authority to conduct any operations in our territorial or exclusive economic zone. Theirs was an escalation of their expansionist action. Nothing can justify their action.” Mimicking the Israeli leaders’ repeated calls in the case of their war, he said the “whole world should condemn the Chinese.”
Teodoro is grossly misinformed. Or it could just be faked if he is just using the anti-China card as his way to the presidency — yes, this early — believing the polls (which really have biased questionnaires) that most Filipinos hate China. His giant billboard ads and Instagram posts make me believe that is his tack, as well as Risa Hontiveros, who has something similar. Something new, isn’t it? Warmongering in aid of election.
Teodoro obviously hasn’t been informed that China claims the Spratlys (which Ayungin is a part of) as part of their sovereign territory it calls Nansha. Teodoro in the press conference repeatedly claimed that China has no business in Ayungin since it was within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
As I have written in my many columns and in my book — and as others have similarly done — EEZ cannot be superior or negate sovereignty over a territory. The EEZ is a recent construct that is the result of the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (Unclos) that took effect only in 1994, while most nations’ territories had been defined and recognized by other countries much, much earlier than that.
For instance, our northern EEZ reaches up to parts of Taiwan, but we cannot claim it is ours, nor that that island state’s territorial sea is within our jurisdiction. The Unclos provides guidelines on how countries may agree on the delimitation of their overlapping EEZs. An EEZ cannot reduce a country’s territory and territorial sea except by mutual agreement.
Teodoro reveals his ignorance of our disputes in all his blah-blahs that China violated our sovereignty in Ayungin because our EEZ encompasses that shoal. That is so patently wrong.
He could have shown some knowledge of our disputes if he pointed out that Ayungin was within our Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), which was created as part of our territory by the Marcos Sr. Presidential Decree 1596 of 1978, which was affirmed as within our territory under Republic Act 1592 of 2009. Yet he is ignorant of these, obviously, his depth of knowledge is limited to newspaper headlines. And to think that Teodoro is a lawyer who insists that he be referred to not just as secretary, but secretary “Atty.”
If he doesn’t believe me nor other writers who have explained the difference between “sovereign territory” and “EEZ,” he should hire former justice Antonio Carpio — very much known as a China basher — as a tutor. In Carpio’s recent lecture at the UP (which I wrote about last Monday), he explained for the first time that our disputes in the South China Sea involve not just maritime-area rights (EEZ, territorial sea, etc.) and territorial claims.
Carpio explained that while the arbitral decision resolved our disputes with China regarding EEZs (a claim that is actually inaccurate), our territorial disputes remain unresolved. Only voluntary arbitration can. He emphasized the international law that an EEZ cannot negate a sovereign territory by recommending that we just wait for sea levels to rise (because of climate change) and submerge the islands that China occupies.
In Teodoro’s simplistic, or misinformed, mind, China one day just took over Ayungin because of its expansionist aims. This is grossly wrong.
While China occupied seven reefs in 1988 (worried over Vietnam’s accelerated occupation of many features), it took control of Mischief Reef only in 1994. The Fidel Ramos government’s secrecy in giving an oil exploration authority to an American firm in the nearby Reed Bank gave China the excuse to build a small facility on stilts there. The outpost was supposed to be a refuge for fishermen but was actually a warning to Ramos not to authorize oil exploration in the Reed Bank, which subsequently didn’t.
In response to the Aquino 3rd government’s arbitration suit against China in 2013, the superpower, as the saying goes, “established facts on the ground”: It turned its reefs through massive land reclamation into huge, fortified islands. Mischief Reef — just 40 kilometers to Ayungin, the distance from Manila to Corregidor — had several ports where its navy and coast guard vessels could dock and then patrol the area up to Ayungin Shoal.
Before that, though, the Joseph Estrada government created a new aspect to the Ayungin dispute.
To prove his nationalist credentials, or because of prodding from his military top brass, Estrada, a year after he assumed power in 1998, thought it was a bright idea to deliberately ground two of our vessels in two China-claimed areas that were closest to the Philippines, as a much-needed proof that we had sovereignty over these areas.
In May 1999, the BRP Benguet was grounded near Scarborough Shoal and the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. His Foreign secretary, Domingo Siazon, however, quickly convinced Estrada to withdraw the ships, claiming the move would antagonize China, to which the two wanted to be closer than previous administrations.
The BRP Benguet, since it was closer to the mainland, was pulled out in June, but the Sierra Madre wasn’t, with Estrada — or Siazon, we are unsure — promising to remove it soon. The Chinese agreed, but with one condition: that the vessel would not be maintained and that materials to repair it or even to stop it from rusting would not be brought there. As a result, the Sierra Madre had deteriorated so much, with rust eating it into a dilapidated state.
Because of its US-inspired efforts to portray China as a bully, the Aquino 3rd administration reneged on the agreement not only to pull out the vessel. It made several attempts to bring construction and maintenance supplies to it, most of which were intercepted by the Chinese.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s administration revived such a plan and made two such failed attempts, until the recent one when the civilian supply vessels were accompanied by Philippine Coast Guard and Navy ships, with the Chinese maneuvering successfully to block the attempt. This is what got Teodoro’s goat, calling it, for some reason, he can only explain, a blatant violation of the Philippines’ sovereignty and a Chinese expansionist action.
This is dangerous: a Defense secretary who doesn’t really know what our maritime and territorial disputes with a superpower in our neighborhood really are.
We have unresolved territorial disputes with China. Do we really want to insist that we maintain a rusty World War 2 vessel as our “outpost,” which sooner or later will sink into the sea? Or do we negotiate with China for some gain, like giving back Scarborough Shoal to us, which after all is near us, and a few billions of official aid every year, announced on a 10-year time frame?
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