FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

For some reason, Philippine media did not give this item the prominence it deserves: China has effectively occupied Scarborough Shoal. A large Chinese fleet is parked in the area, shooing away Filipino fishermen who dare come near their traditional fishing ground.

Scarborough Shoal is rich spawning ground for a wide range of marine life. More important, effective occupation of the shoal extends China’s territorial claims over a large swath of the sea, some areas of which likely contain gas and oil deposits.

Occupation of Scarborough Shoal extends the effort that began with the occupation of parts of the Spratlys island group. At the onset, Beijing claimed they were merely establishing facilities for their fishing fleets in the area. Those facilities have now become full-blown offshore bases for the Chinese navy.

Beijing established a local government unit for all the areas of the South China Sea they have effectively occupied over the past years. The idea for that was originally ours. Many years before, we created a fictional municipality called Kalayaan as part of the province of Palawan. 

In the last election, Kalayaan was one of the municipalities where the polls where most efficiently conducted. In an hour or so, its handful of residents completed voting with, of course, a hundred percent turnout. There is not much else to do in this fictional municipality, host to a Philippine Marines base.

The fictional Chinese municipality is a thousand times larger, encompassing reefs and shoals claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. They have not held elections yet — but it is easy to imagine such an exercise will be conducted with the same efficiency as the one held for Kalayaan “town.”

Scarborough Shoal is uninhabited, being mostly under water. By our legal fiction, it is part of Masinloc municipality in the province of Zambales. It stands outside our territorial waters, however, although it is well within what we claim as our exclusive economic zone. China does not honor that zonal claim for obvious reasons.

For generations, Chinese and Filipino fishermen fished peaceably around the Shoal. For as long as no nation asserted sovereignty over the area (translating into exclusive access), this condition might have persisted for generations to come.

Things changed when, in a moment of populist bravado, President Benigno Aquino declared in a major speech that foreigners will be accosted at Recto Bank like they were at Recto Avenue. That was good sound bite, but a disastrous policy statement. We drew a line on the sand that Beijing eagerly crossed. There is a price to pay for arrogant bluster.

Then the unfortunate incident at Scarborough Shoal happened last year. We stupidly paraded our freshly inherited warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, at the Shoal, militarizing the situation. Beijing seized the opportunity to bring its naval might to bear. Compounding that mistake, we withdrew our naval force from the area shortly thereafter, allowing Beijing to consolidate its hold.

It was the wrong time to pick a fight with China. The Communist Party was in the process of installing a new generation of leaders. The party needed to fire up nationalist passions, the last source of legitimacy for a leadership that had no other ideological mooring. We provided them a pretext for nationalist posturing.

To that long record of miscalculations, we have now added another mistake. A Philippine Coast Guard vessel, with the mission to assert exclusivity in our economic zone rained a hail of fire on an unarmed Taiwanese fishing boat.

Manila maintains the ship was in our waters. Taipei maintains their ship was in their waters. Regardless, there was no reason for our Coast Guard to rake an unarmed fishing vessel with deadly fire. This was like a reenactment of the Atimonan incident in the high seas. There is another Marantan out there our government never even bothered to officially identify.

Taipei demanded an apology. Manila said it was still investigating the incident. An unarmed vessel was raked with deadly fire, killing a crewmember. No further investigation will mitigate that fact.

Manila’s numb (and dumb) response understandably infuriated the Taiwanese, leading to several violent incidents inflicted on Filipino workers in the island. When our government was ready to offer a guarded apology, it was too late. The damage was done. In both the Taiwanese and Chinese media, the Philippines is being called the most barbaric country in the region.

In the absence of a prompt and official Philippine report on the deadly incident, Taiwan sent in its own team of investigators ready to work with our agencies. Justice Secretary de Lima rejected participation of the Taiwanese. The Taiwanese team, covered by a large delegation of Taiwanese journalists, was rudely sent home.

Before leaving, the exasperated Taiwanese team held their own press conference. It would have been immensely better if such an event was conducted jointly with Philippine authorities, but our inhospitable officials seemed preoccupied with other trivial things. Now it will be more difficult for the Philippine government to convince an angry Taiwanese public we are not engaged in a cover-up.

At this point, it will be difficult to remedy damaged relations in the remaining life of this administration. The present leadership has simply lost the goodwill of our neighbors.

The punitive measures imposed by Taiwan on us will bite. Because of this incident, they will enforce their own maritime claims more strongly, with the naval muscle to do so. Our fishermen will be forced to retreat to municipal waters. Our economic losses will continue to pile up.

Our tale of diplomatic stupidity just continues to unwind.












  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with