Retort
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 12, 2019 - 12:00am

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited last week, he made assurances his country would come to the Philippines’ defense in the event of an armed attack on our vessels and aircraft in the South China Sea. His words were interpreted as a thinly veiled warning to China.

When asked subsequently about Pompeo’s remarks, China’s ambassador to the Philippines was sharp in his retort. The high profile Ambassador Zhao Jianhua is not shy in his public comments. He reiterated his country will not launch an attack in the South China Sea and that region should worry more about “the other side” doing so. That “other side” is the US.

From China’s viewpoint, there is enough reason to be alarmed. Over the past few months, heavily armed ships and aircraft from US forces have pressed close to the man-made islands China built in the disputed areas.

US officials have justified these maneuvers as being meant to assure freedom of navigation in the busy maritime routes of the South China Sea. The Chinese see them as dangerous provocations that could produce unplanned skirmishes.

China should be more concerned about ensuring freedom of navigation in these vital routes. A full 80% of China’s trade passes through this area.

China insists it has absolutely no plan to curtail freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. On the contrary, they point out that it is the US and some of its military allies that has undertaken the “Talisman-Saber” military exercises that are expressly a war game with the goal of closing down the Malacca Straits.

Since so much of China’s trade passes through the South China Sea, it is arguable that they built those expensive facilities in the contested reefs precisely to improve the certainty of freedom of navigation. By contrast, very little of American trade passes through these sea routes.

Ambassador Zhao calls up the historical record to support his assertion that the nations with standing claims in the South China Sea should be more wary of US designs for the area. When the Philippines occupied ten islands and features in the contested area, China did not take any aggressive stance. It was Vietnam who seized Pugad Island after it was already occupied by Philippine forces.

He goes back farther in the historical past.

Over the past thousand years of commercial interchange between us, never once did China mount and attack against us. On the contrary, China warmly received delegations from Philippine kingdoms and sultanates beginning from the trade mission sent by Rajah Kiling of Butuan in 1,000 AD.

In 1417, Sultan Paduka Batara even visited Emperor Yongle and was declared a brother. In archival documents, the Sultan was referred to as the “Eastern King.”

In Jolo, there is a stone tablet memorializing the visit of Poon Tao Kong (Pei-Pei Hien), an officer of the Chinese admiral Changho. The admiral and his fleet is credited with navigating the “South Seas” and possibly sailed as far as Africa.

Ambassador Zhao reminds us of this long history of fraternal exchange to underscore the claim that his country has no aggressive intentions toward us. But he will have to work a little harder to turn back the tide of Filipino public opinion suspicious of China’s intentions.

Reports of Chinese vessels chasing away Filipino fishermen from reefs they have fished on for centuries does not help Beijing’s diplomatic effort. For most Filipinos, China is simply too big, too rich, too opaque and too close to be reassuring.

Dry

Over the weekend, the water level at La Mesa dam fell below the critical level. That should send all the alarm bells ringing.

We were warned this would be an El Nino year. But no one told us that water levels would fall this low even before the official start of our “summer.”

Now water will have to be rationed. In some neighborhoods, faucets have run dry. In densely packed, high-rise communities, the decrease in water pressure will make life unbearable. In other communities, supply will be intermittent. Expect some amount of out-migration from the metropolis as soon as schools close.

There have been two opposing schools of thought regarding water sufficiency for the 14 million people inhabiting this sprawling urban tangle we call Mega Manila. One says, we have enough water and nothing more needs to be done to boost supply. The other says the metropolitan area will soon experience serious water shortages with the worsening effects of climate change.

The school of thought that says our supply is adequate appeared to have persuaded our policy makers.

For years, we have heard many proposals to increase our water supply: building a ring dike at the Candaba swamp to impound rainwater; filtering the water at Laguna de Bay; and, finally building the Kaliwa river diversion project. Of the three, the Kaliwa river project is finally going through with the help of Chinese financing.

All the alternatives for boosting Mega Manila’s water supply will be coming too late. We will suffer many years of the sort of shortages we are experiencing now. Blame that on bureaucratic diffidence.

As it is the practice, water from the Central and Northern Luzon dams are diverted from irrigation lines to the La Mesa Dam when supply for the city runs short. This is a political decision. No government wants to antagonize 14 million thirsty, unwashed and politically articulate city residents.

Diverting scarce water from agriculture, however, will consequently produce problems in the supply and prices of food in the city.

LA MESA DAM MIKE POMPEO
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