World opinion, naval powers will shame China in reef grab

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - March 31, 2021 - 12:00am

China’s embassy in Manila denies invasion by its maritime militia of the Philippines’ Julian Felipe Reef. Supposedly the 220 Chinese vessels are fishers sheltering from storm. The embassy even disavows the very existence of such militarized fishing fleet.

That’s classic Beijing duplicity. At the same time it trumpets to home audiences the “triumphs” of its thousands-strong People’s Armed Force Maritime Militia. It also builds militia trawlers – so far 84 – with reinforced steel hulls for ramming, arms for harassing and gadgets for spying in neighbor-states’ waters. The PAFMM assists the People’s Liberation Army in sea aggression.

The 220 Chinese craft were sighted at Julian Felipe on March 7. No international weather bulletin mentioned any storm before then till today, when they remain in phalanx at the reef 175 miles from Philippine shore. It’s the amihan (northeasterly season) of calm waters in the West Philippine (South China) Sea. Even if it were habagat (southwest monsoon) of rough seas, no storm lasts that long. Still Beijing sticks to the “innocent sheltering” alibi to mask its bullying.

Chinese militia occupation of Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef is but the first step. Next is to concrete the reef. Julian Felipe is part of Pagkakaisa (Union) Bank, in the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone. In 2013 China started paving airstrips in the bank’s McKennan (Hughes) and Mabini (Johnson South) Reefs. With a triangle of fortified artificial islands, China will bolster its grab of Pagkakaisa. From there it can menace Vietnamese patrols and the Philippines’ nearby Pagasa Island. China had employed the same trick of “innocent shelter” in 1995 to grab Panganiban (Mischief) Reef closer to Palawan. Reclaiming it into a naval and air base, China now threatens Filipino surveyors at adjacent oil- and gas-rich Recto (Reed) Bank.

Blockades by fisheries militia are part of China’s “gray zone operations.” If done by the PLA-Navy, it is a direct provocation to war. Feigning innocent civilian fishing and sheltering blurs blatant aggression. China is like a rogue state deploying terrorists to subvert a coveted neighbor prior to annexation.

Manila is no stranger to China’s maritime militia duplicity. Backed by China coastguards, armed fishers drive away Filipinos from territorial Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and Sandy Cay.

China employed maritime militia in attempting to plant a giant oil rig in Vietnam’s Paracel Archipelago in 2014. Again in 2020, when it surrounded Japan’s Senkaku Islands. World opinion and sail-by of naval powers made China retreat.

Europe, Britain, America, Canada, Japan and Australia have denounced China’s occupation of Julian Felipe. Freedom of navigation operations by their warships can send the message to Beijing to desist or be shamed.

The free world can also define and sanction maritime militia aggression for territorial expansion. In China’s case, the militarized militia breaks international law and treaties:

First, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. UNCLOS allows innocent passage of foreign vessels in a coastal state’s territorial waters or EEZ. Vessels may traverse the waters continuously and expeditiously, not stopping or anchoring except in force majeure. “Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state.” Since there is no storm, the anchoring by 220 Chinese militia vessels is not force majeure. From precedence, it threatens Philippine peace, good order and security.

Second, the 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea. The DOC states: “The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.” China is doing the opposite.

Third, the Permanent Court of Arbitration verdict of 2016. The PCA outlawed China’s expansionist “nine-dash line.” Upheld was the Philippines’ sovereign right to its EEZ which China violated by taking eight reefs and shoals. No world court grants China jurisdiction over other countries’ EEZs, despite its unilateral claim to the Spratlys. No international ruling recognizes China’s concocted “historical rights.”

China further breaks the Philippines’ Fisheries Code (RA 8550). The law deems mere entry by a foreign fishing vessel in Philippine waters as poaching. Fines and prison terms are specified. An industrial scale Chinese trawler can haul in 12 tons of fish per day. The 220 can steal 2,640 tons or 2,640,000 kilos. Fish are Filipinos’ main source of food protein. China’s presence at Julian Felipe Reef threatens Filipinos’ health and environment. China is taking advantage of Philippine weakness and friendliness.

The reef is named after the composer in 1898 of the Filipino National Anthem. In that hymn Filipinos swear, “Sa manlulupig di ka pasisiil (Ne’er shall invaders trample thy sacred shores).”

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“Gotcha: An Exposé on the Philippine Government” is available as e-book and paperback. Get a free copy of “Chapter 1: Beijing’s Bullying and Duplicity.” Simply subscribe to my newsletter at: https://jariusbondoc.com/#subscribe. Book orders also accepted there.

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