#Journeyto30 Reefs of mischief
Epi Fabonan III (The Philippine Star) - March 5, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines - It was Valentine’s Day 1995, and yet The Philippine STAR’s banner story read, “Chinese takeover feared.”

This after the Philippine Navy spotted eight Chinese ships and two concrete structures being built by the Chinese in Mischief Reef, also known as Panganiban Reef. The atoll where the encroachment happened is located 135 nautical miles west of Palawan in the South China Sea (now West Philippine Sea).

The story was enough to keep everyone on edge, prompting Manila to call for a National Security Council meeting and file an aide-mémoire, and then a diplomatic protest, against Beijing. The story became front page fare throughout much of the first half of the year and stoked anti-Chinese sentiments among many Filipinos.

Even back then, China’s mischief in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was already evident. A Filipino fishing vessel captain reported being blocked and harassed by Chinese navy ships in the area prior to the Philippine Navy’s sightings. Even the mayor of Kalayaan town in Pag-asa Island has reported the presence of Chinese fishermen who would block passage to reefs and drive away Filipino fisherfolk.

Even back then, there was little the government could do about these intrusions. Apart from filing a diplomatic protest, there was nothing the Ramos administration could do in response to Chinese occupation of the Kalayaan Group of Islands. The country could no longer rely on long-time ally the United States, whose military bases had been voted out the country just three years prior.

Some members of the House of Representatives led by Speaker Jose de Venecia urged Ramos to invite the US Navy to use Subic Bay again to conduct ship repairs and for crew R&Rs. They must have thought such move would hinder a growing Chinese navy from further incursions. The Ramos administration declined the proposal.

Instead, Ramos called for increased military presence and surveillance in Philippine-held islands in the region. It also began intercepting Chinese fishing boats in the area and removing markers placed by Chinese fishermen in several reefs and atolls. But in the face of the weakest armed force in Southeast Asia, the Chinese weren’t intimidated by these “small actions.” The country after all is no match against a two million-strong Chinese People’s Liberation Army. In a show of defiance, two Chinese frigates blocked a vessel of the Department of National Defense, with more than a dozen members of the press onboard, as it attempted to approach Panganiban Reef in May of the same year.

With a weak military to support its presence in the Spratlys Islands, the Ramos administration sought diplomatic recourse on the issue but to no avail. Ramos sent Foreign Affairs undersecretary Rodolfo Severino to engage fellow Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states and urged them to condemn China’s actions. He only managed to get the ASEAN to issue a joint statement expressing serious concern over China’s presence in the region. Severino also met with his Chinese counterparts to discuss the issue, but Beijing reiterated its position that its structures were civilian in nature.

After the Beijing talks failed, the Department of Foreign Affairs, through its embassy in Washington D.C., turned to Capitol Hill and the White House for moral support. A number of US congressmen expressed grave concern over the issue and called for the Clinton administration to assist America’s long-time ally. But with a Clinton White House that was very warm to the idea of China’s peaceful rise, it merely reiterated its neutrality on the issue and called for a peaceful resolution based on international law.

Even then, the Chinese have been calling for bilateral action on the Spratlys issue. When the Panganiban Reef incident first came to the fore, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Guan Deng-min communicated to President Ramos the invitation from Chinese President Jiang Zemin for a joint exploration of the resource-rich island chain. Ramos knew that such joint exploration would mean submission to Chinese hegemony in the region. He told Jiang he would only agree to it if other claimants agreed to it too.

Now, more than 20 years later, we’re still powerless against Chinese mischief in the West Philippine Sea. Just this week, there were reports of Chinese activity in Quirino (Jackson) Atoll. Despite the ongoing AFP modernization, the country still doesn’t stand a chance against a more formidable Chinese navy.

The Aquino government’s decision to tread the path of international law in resolving the crisis via the Permanent Court of Arbitration has consequently tied the country under international law obligations, thereby preventing it from developing islands it occupies. Despite this legal challenge, China refuses to recognize the Tribunal’s jurisdiction and has continued its occupation, on an even larger scale, by conducting massive land reclamation in several reefs, including Panganiban Reef.

There have been calls from various politicians, including those running in the upcoming elections, to engage China in bilateral talks. But Manila can only talk to Beijing from a position of strength and not of vulnerability.

And so, with the very little our country has done to bring the Spratlys issue to a peaceful resolution, the mischief continues — and it is inching closer to mayhem.


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