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The other surge

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 16, 2021 - 12:00am

Even as COVID cases continue to surge and the variants (the gang’s all here; can the government still keep track?) become deadlier, we keep being diverted by another surge.

This one is taking place within our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea: the surge of Chinese ships. Coast Guard ships, missile-equipped attack and patrol vessels of the Chinese military, fishing vessels large enough to collect (illegally) up to a ton of marine bounty – you name it, they have it, all swarming within our EEZ, as defined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

After Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana decried the swarm of about 220 vessels in Julian Felipe Reef and the Department of Foreign Affairs fired off diplomatic protests, the ships – many of them lashed together, making fishing unlikely – dispersed around the South China Sea.

But in the blink of an eye, they’re back, with a vengeance.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported that earlier this week, there were not just 220 but 240 Chinese vessels inside the West Philippine Sea. Video footage showed some of the vessels laden with fish and protected species such as giant clams; as usual, the fishing boats were backed by Chinese military ships.

*      *      *

It makes sense to maintain our friendship with China – the world’s second largest economy, with which we have had positive ties centuries before the Spaniards arrived in our archipelago. It certainly makes sense to me, with my maternal roots in China’s southern Fujian province.

President Duterte has made friendship with China the linchpin of his foreign policy.

It’s been a long five years of Duterte professing a lovefest with Chinese President-for-life Xi Jinping. This should be long enough to produce positive results.

Unfortunately for our country, the friendship has not been reciprocated – whether in terms of the touted major Chinese investments, development projects, an end to incursions in the West Philippine Sea, even the misplaced hope that we would get all the COVID vaccines we need.

Through those five years, President Duterte often said he was not setting aside the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which defined our maritime entitlements within our EEZ and invalidated Beijing’s bizarre nine-dash-line claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.

Sadly, two other countries have beaten us in invoking the arbitral ruling that we won to assert their EEZ and shoo away Chinese intruders: first Malaysia and then Indonesia. President Joko Widodo of Indonesia didn’t jet-ski to his country’s Natunas Islands when Chinese ships came too close last year. But he himself went to one of the islands; the Chinese dispersed, and did not swarm back.

Accused of snatching defeat away from the jaws of victory, Duterte always said he would invoke the arbitral ruling “at the proper time.” In the past months he has found his “proper time” – before Xi himself, and at international gatherings and other public events.

By most accounts, Xi responded with a hint of going to war. And today we have those 240 Chinese vessels swarming our waters.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio aptly described the one-way friendship as “unrequited love.”

*      *      *

With the COVID infection and death rates now surging and most livelihoods shattered by the pandemic, people are remembering the start of this pestilence in our country, and attributing it to Duterte’s embrace of China. Not even the freebie of one million Sinovac jabs (and our purchase of another one million) can dispel this sentiment.

People are blaming the worst crisis in our lifetime to that linchpin of the Duterte administration’s foreign policy. It’s been given five years to work, and it’s not working.

Instead Beijing insults its friend in the Philippines by sending even more ships, with additional Navy escorts, not just to Julian Felipe Reef but all over the West Philippine Sea.

In those five years, not a single inch of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, over which the arbitral tribunal specifically gave us sovereign rights, has been turned over to the Philippines. The reef is now a heavily fortified Chinese military outpost off Palawan. The Chinese continue to drive away our fishermen from Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.

Also specifically covered by the arbitral award is Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, where a Chinese Coast Guard ship chased away a news crew of ABS-CBN last week. The AFP’s initial reaction was pathetically gutless.

Our people can’t fish and our journalists can’t practice their profession in our own waters. This has to be a failure of foreign policy.

I doubt if this earns any respect for Duterte in the halls of Beijing.

*      *      *

What can be done at this point? Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. has vowed to file a diplomatic protest every day until every Chinese ship is gone. Let’s hope nothing is getting lost in translation.

Another option is to make this an international issue, with the self-interest of other countries also at stake. We can lobby, for example, for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Even China needs the world, for its continued prosperity, to end its still massive poverty, and to earn its proper place of respect in the community of nations.

When its economic juggernaut is threatened, China bows to the rules – especially if the effort to make it do so involves many countries.

Several of its largest trading partners have started openly calling for compliance with the arbitral ruling. The countries are not only issuing statements but sending their navies to the South China Sea for freedom of navigation exercises. The United Kingdom is sending its new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier strike group to the SCS on its way to Japan.

Then there’s the other option, of David confronting Goliath. We can actually send our vessels – coast guard to coast guard, navy to navy, Bureau of Fisheries vessel to fishing boat – to challenge Chinese ships within our EEZ.

What would happen if two or three of our coast guard or navy vessels find themselves surrounded by a swarm of Chinese ships?

Then there will be a standoff, and the international community will see which country will behave responsibly. I’m sure our security forces are not lacking in courageous patriots willing to stand their ground in defense of the country.

Or who knows, we might have friends who will stand with us in our moment of need, shoulder to shoulder against a regional bully.

We won’t know what will happen until we try. The worst option is to do nothing.

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