Mike Pompeo’s vow can embolden Philippines to retake Scarborough
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - March 6, 2019 - 12:00am

State Sec. Mike Pompeo’s pledge of US help against any Philippine aggressor is tough and clear. Almost word-for-word he reiterated the 1951 Phl-US Mutual Defense Treaty. Referenced were the waters and air space where China has been harassing Filipino fishers and sailors. “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our [MDT],” he declared in Manila last weekend.

That should embolden Filipino leaders peaceably to retake Scarborough Shoal from China. Any violent Chinese counteraction shall prompt US intervention. The sea feature 120 miles from Luzon and 600 miles from Hainan is legal Philippine territory. China has blockaded it from Filipino patrols and commercial craft since 2012. In 2016 a UN arbitral court illegalized China’s continued occupation. It’s time Manila reasserts Philippine sovereignty – backed by Washington. The MDT was crafted 68 years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, precisely to deter communist China’s expansionism in Southeast Asia.

Historical documents back the legality of Scarborough as Filipino territory. Philippine maps of the 1700s-1800s under Spain, affirmed by British and Japanese mariners, identified it as a “punto de mandato,” or official outpost. Scarborough was among the islands and features ceded by Spain to the United States under the Treaties of Paris, 1898, and of Washington, 1900. Manila under American rule continued to exercise maritime and juridical control. The Bureaus of Navigation and of Science researched the area, recorded by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. Shipwrecks in and around the shoal were rescued, investigated and salvaged from, and litigated in Manila, all the way to the US Supreme Court. Scarborough officially was listed in the US government’s Census of Philippine Islands, 1918. (Uncontroverted researches by Supreme Court Senior Justice Antonio T. Carpio and international maritime law expert Dr. Jay L. Batongbacal are on the Institute for Maritime and Ocean Affairs website: imoa.ph.)

Washington ascertained Philippine sovereignty over Scarborough. The Philippine Commonwealth had inquired in 1937 if it must patrol the territory. The US Coast and Geodetic Survey re-charted the area and reported to the Cabinet. Exchanging notes, three US Secretaries – of the Navy, of War, and of Commerce – confirmed that no other state, including Britain, claimed the area. Since the US had acquired Scarborough under the 1898 and 1900 treaties, it was deemed transferred then to the Philippine Commonwealth.

The US recognized sole Philippine control under the new Republic in 1947. Joint naval and air exercises regularly were held there from the 1950s to 1990s, with the Philippines in charge of notifying passing foreign vessels. Manila’s jurisdiction, including in running after smugglers, globally was recognized.

Beijing claims Scarborough by unfounded “historic right.” It tells of an explorer observing the shoal from towers hundreds of miles away in the mainland. In the late 1930s it renamed features of the Spratlys from a British Admiralty map, and mistakenly included the shoal. Supposedly it had erected towers on the protruding rocks  – an impossibility since the peaks were submerged in high tide. Based on that it licensed a ham radio operator to occupy one rock, quickly abandoned on Philippine protest and onset of the monsoon. In 2009 Beijing unilaterally unveiled a “nine-dash territorial map” encompassing the entire South China Sea. Ignored were the overlapping 200-mile exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

By guile in 2012, Beijing grabbed Scarborough at the height of a standoff with Philippine patrols over destructive Chinese fishing. The 2016 UN ruling recounted Scarborough as traditional fishing grounds of Southeast Asians – Filipinos, southern Chinese – but steered clear of the territorial sovereignty issue. That is a matter for Manila legally to assert. Military might alone backs Beijing’s spurious claims. In contrast the Philippines renounces war as instrument of national policy.

Manila has been advised to file for more UN arbitrations to enforce the 2016 ruling. Included are for recompense for Chinese environmental destruction in landfilling and concreting seven Philippine reefs into island fortresses. As Manila talks of non-violent moves, Beijing threatens armed responses. In Pagasa Island at the edge of the Philippine EEZ and Ayungin Shoal, Chinese fighters buzz unarmed Filipino air transports while attack helicopters splash resupply boats. In Scarborough, Chinese warships have rammed and water-cannoned Filipino fishing boats.

Avoiding confrontation, President Rody Duterte has shelved the 2016 arbitration award. Still, Chinese actions increasingly and deliberately have been belligerent. Filipino sailors’ show of patience and amity are met with threats. Chinese provocations make mis-encounter imminent.

The 1951 MDT had anticipated China’s military rise. Its Article 5 states: “For the purpose of Article IV, an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the Island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana wants a review of the MDT. Foreign Sec. Teddy Locsin prefers that it stays.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459, or The STAR website https://www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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