Here’s a question that true friends should not be afraid to ask, and answer: if the Philippines decided to set up an environmental monitoring station on Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, to preserve endangered giant clams and sharks from poachers, how would Beijing react?
It would probably deploy overnight an armada of civilian but heavily armed maritime security vessels to the shoal off Zambales, surround the area and declare it a protected zone – protected, that is, by the Chinese, with the rest of the world restricted from entering.
Which is not supposed to be the case. The United Nations-backed Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague had declared in its landmark ruling last year that Panatag is a common fishing ground and China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights when it occupied and shooed away Filipino fishermen from the shoal. The same historic ruling invalidated China’s entire nine-dash-line territorial claim over nearly all of the South China Sea.
After that major international defeat, Beijing has managed to save face, thanks in large part to the hand of friendship proffered by President Duterte. In the wake of the Philippine victory before an international court, Duterte has deemed it prudent not to rub it in, and instead mend fences with a giant neighbor.
The President is building on the fact that the Philippines has a history of friendship with China that predates the Spanish colonial period. That friendship was shaken in 2012 when the Chinese occupied Panatag Shoal, a long way from its 200-mile exclusive economic zone as provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both countries have ratified. The occupation prompted Manila to turn to international arbitration in 2013.
Now Beijing is reportedly planning to build an “environmental monitoring station” on the shoal, even as its “research ships” have entered Benham Rise in the Pacific Ocean – a continental shelf where the Philippines exercises sovereign rights recognized by the UN.
Yesterday the normally tough talking President Duterte said no one could stop China from doing whatever it wanted in disputed waters. Militarily, probably not. But there is such a thing as diplomatic persuasion, especially between friends. Friendship can be more powerful than a nuclear bomb, and President Duterte currently has this tool that it can use in dealing with China. He cannot just look on helplessly in the face of a creeping invasion of disputed waters. That’s not friendship. It’s surrender.