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‘Weapons of mass destruction’ then, ‘Chinese aggression’ now

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REMEMBER the colossal US lie that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” consisting of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, which made it necessary to invade that nation in 2003, which resulted in a million direct and indirect killings of human beings.

That the US propaganda machine was so powerful the lie was widely believed even by the most renowned US newspapers, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, which, however, would issue an apology in 2004 that they failed to fact-check the US government’s fabrications?

The WMD equivalent is now “Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.” It’s intention? In the long run, to demonize China to prevent it from replacing the US as the preeminent superpower in the region. In the medium term, to make the Philippines its military base for America’s commitment to defend Taiwan from being taken over by China.

Chinese vessels water-cannoning a Philippine supply ship. The typical caption in local media: ‘China’s actions in Ayungin Shoal infringe upon the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction.’ No mention of China’s claim of sovereignty over the area, established on the ground in 1995. PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD FILE PHOTO VIA AP

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. keeps condemning China’s “aggressive” attacks in the South China Sea. An otherwise intelligent but grossly ignorant columnist even headlined his piece to refer to “Chinese aggression.” The recent joint statement of leaders of the US, Japan and the Philippines condemned China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.”

But where exactly in the 50 islands and shoals in the Spratlys occupied — and claimed — by China, the Philippines and Vietnam did Chinese “aggressive attacks,” “aggression,” and “dangerous and aggressive behavior” occur?

Not in Scarborough Shoal, as that area has become tranquil — with fishermen from all three countries freely allowed to fish, except for the annual ban for fish-stock replenishment. It was actually President Benigno Aquino 3rd who was the aggressor in 2012 when he foolishly deployed the Navy’s largest warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar to escort the Bureau of Fisheries staff who arrested Chinese fishermen there.

Withdraw

China, of course, retaliated, sending a flotilla of fishermen and China Marine Surveillance vessels to defend its citizens. That led to a standoff that lasted seven weeks. It ended after Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario ordered the Philippine vessels to withdraw, tricked by US Assistant State Secretary Kurt Campbell. The US, after all, wants the stand-off to lead to war that it could be dragged into. Campbell lied to del Rosario that the Chinese had agreed to a simultaneous withdrawal. The gullible secretary ordered our ships to leave the shoal’s lagoon, in effect turning it over to China.

Ayungin is just 38 km from Mischief Reef, which has a highly developed artificial island fortress (inset).

So, where else in the Spratlys has the Chinese “demonstrated aggressive behavior”? Marcos and the US camp can point only to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. But it’s not at all a case of aggression if one sees through the heavy mist of US propaganda.

China had blocked several efforts by the Philippine Navy to supply with repair materials the marine squad stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre grounded there. Without these, the Sierra Madre has deteriorated so badly that it is full of rust, and its hull now has so many dangerous holes that could fill it with seawater.

The China Coast Guard blocked the Philippine vessels by maneuvering their vessels to force the Filipino wooden boats away from their course and water-cannoned them. With media always brought by the Philippine Navy in such operations, the Chinese, of course, are depicted as “Goliaths” oppressing the “Davids” who are merely “asserting their country’s rights.”

Misinformed

The patently misinformed Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tarriela, in a robotic fashion, repeats again and again after such incidents that China is an aggressor for blocking our vessels because “Ayungin Shoal is within our exclusive economic zone and is very distant — very far from China.”

Such is Tarriela’s shocking ignorance. He is clueless to the fact that an EEZ provides only sovereign rights over exploitation of the natural resources by the coastal state, but it cannot negate the absolute sovereignty of a country if it overlaps with it. Our EEZ, for example, overlaps with the territorial sea and land territory of Indonesia. Our EEZ does not annul Indonesia’s territories.

China claims that Ayungin, which it calls Rén’ài Jiāo, is part of its Nansha archipelago, and its sovereignty is evidenced by historical records, official maps, and the 1959 Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea of 1958 and the 1992 Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone. Tarriela is ignorant about the fact that distance has never been a justification for sovereign claims, as in the case of the Falkland Islands, just off Argentina’s coast but owned by Great Britain, among many examples.

Furthermore, the Philippines actually gave up Ayungin Shoal nearly 30 years ago in 1995. I was among more than a dozen foreign correspondents who witnessed the event.

Silent

To understand this, it is against international law, as well as the United Nations Charter, for a country to use force to take control of territory claimed and occupied by another nation. International law is silent, though, if a country takes control of a territory claimed by another nation without the use of force.

Thus, in 1975, the Filipino troops stationed in Southwest Cay were tricked by the South Vietnamese into leaving their watch to attend a birthday party in the Vietnamese-controlled Northeast Cay. When the Filipino soldiers returned the next morning, the Vietnamese shooed them away with machine gun placements. We could not protest that the Vietnamese grabbed our territory. Technically, we gave it away, as no shots were fired.

A second case is the Scarborough Shoal case, from which the Philippines withdrew, believing a US diplomat’s false claims as described above. We could not protest that the Chinese had grabbed that territory. Technically, Aquino 3rd’s foreign secretary Albert del Rosario gave Scarborough away.

The third case is Ayungin Shoal. China occupied in 1994 Mischief Reef (just 38 km from Ayungin) and built small facilities on stilts, to retaliate against the Fidel Ramos government’s go-ahead for a foreign company to explore for gas in the nearby Reed Bank, which the Chinese claim. Ramos thought that the US and the international community would intervene if the occupation were given more media attention.

Operation

Thus, Ramos ordered an operation that carried a dozen foreign journalists, including me, on a Navy Landing Tank Ship (LST) that was reconfigured to carry two helicopters. The helicopters carried us to make many fly-bys above the Chinese facilities. The spectacular photos hit the headlines of newspapers around the world. The world, though, didn’t care, even the US, and the issue died down a few months later.

Ramos’ bright idea had a huge backlash. Chinese civilian vessels and fishing boats blocked the LST, which tried to sail closer to Mischief Reef, to get the media photographers a different shooting angle. The Philippine Navy ship didn’t move, and there was a standoff — until the ship’s captain was told by headquarters to withdraw. Spotted on the horizon was the black smoke from three Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s frigates, which the Navy commander of the operation presumed to have orders to engage the Philippine vessels.

The Philippine Navy LST turned around and sailed at top speed away from Ayungin. The Philippines, in effect, gave up its sovereignty over the shoal by running away.

In May 1999, the Sierra Madre ran aground in the shoal. The Navy, as well as our foreign affairs department, claimed it was an accident to avoid accusations that such a deliberate action that changed the status quo in Ayungin, as well as any other area in the Spratlys, violated the Asean agreements, intended to settle the tensions in the disputed area. However, then defense secretary Orlando Mercado and his successors, as well as the Navy’s top brass, boasted to the public that the grounding was deliberate to establish a symbol of Philippine sovereignty claims on Ayungin Shoal.

Removed

China demanded that the Sierra Madre be removed immediately. The Estrada government excused itself by saying that it did not have an authorized budget to undertake the expensive removal of the vessel. That government, however, said it had to station a small contingent of troops there to prevent it from being dismantled for its steel by scavengers.

The Chinese agreed but asked the Philippines to supply the soldiers only with living necessities, not materials to repair the ship or renovate it to become an outpost.

Successive administrations from Estrada down to even the first years of the Benigno Aquino 3rd complied with the agreement. The Sierra Madre rapidly deteriorated because the Philippines agreed not to supply it with anti-rust chemicals or other repair materials and equipment, such as acetylene torches.

Since 2023, however, after Marcos’ volte-face to practically declare China as a threat to the nation and the US as its defender, the Navy undertook many attempts to supply the Sierra Madre with repair and construction materials.

China, of course, believing its sovereignty was being challenged, stationed its bigger coast guard vessels to stop the Philippine ships from supplying the Sierra Madre with repair materials and equipment, using water cannons and maneuvers to drive away the Filipino vessels.

Dramatic

Thus, the Marcos government, with its US masters, has created dramatic scenes showing the Chinese vessels water-cannoning the smaller Filipino boats and dangerously maneuvering to drive them away from the shoal. Without fail, the media report the incidents as China driving away Filipinos who are merely “innocently” attempting to supply the Sierra Madre. There’s hardly any mention that the vessel was grounded in a shoal that the Philippines gave away to China in 1995 and that Philippine administrations up to Aquino had promised to remove but hadn’t.

It is also crucial for the US to keep the tensions high at Ayungin Shoal since the 2016 arbitral ruling in the Philippines vs China arbitration case, which the Americans have been spreading falsely, as evidence has been largely ignored by the world and uncovered as merely a cleverly crafted US propaganda operation. The Ayungin Shoal tension is now the sole handle for the US propaganda machine’s claim of “Chinese aggression.”

What the WMD lie was for the US to justify its invasion of Iraq then; the lie of Chinese aggression in Ayungin Shoal now is to make the Philippines a willing American puppet afraid of China and for its territory to host nine military bases that would be forward operation posts when the US defends China’s rogue province from “Chinese aggression.”


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