Bad balloon

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

As of yesterday, Beijing’s reaction to its unmanned balloon being shot down by the US Air Force was a diplomatic protest lodged with the US embassy, with a warning that China is “reserving the right to make further necessary actions.”

Beijing has insisted that the balloon, which was spotted hovering last week over a base in Montana housing ICBMs, was a wayward civilian unmanned airship.

Taking down the balloon as it moved toward the sea, Beijing said, was an “overreaction” on the part of Washington that set back efforts to “stabilize” tense bilateral relations.

US President Joe Biden had in fact been criticized for acting too late on what his security officials described as a Chinese surveillance balloon, which allegedly carried a massive payload of explosives meant for its self-destruction.

Considering China’s military activities in the South China Sea, its version of the “bad balloon” suffers from a credibility problem.

As noteworthy as the entry of the balloon into American airspace is the Chinese reaction to its property being shot down.

Contrast the muted statements to Beijing’s reaction following then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last year: massive Chinese live-fire military drills staged within spitting distance of Taiwan.

“Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Beijing warned, adding that the US should “not go further down the wrong and dangerous path.”

Naughty folks say Beijing no longer cares if its balloon was shot down, since it had already accomplished its mission if not of collecting sensitive data, then of at least deploying it over America.

Still, its reaction shows that even Xi Jinping, the most hawkish of the Chinese leaders in the post-Mao era, avoids direct confrontation when other countries show capability to express displeasure over China’s actions.

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Indonesia has done it, sinking and burning Chinese and other foreign ships that intrude into its waters including around the Natuna islands, which China is claiming.

Microstate Palau also reacted strongly when a Chinese fishing boat was spotted in the archipelago’s shark sanctuary in 2012. Palau police fatally shot a Chinese fisherman and arrested five others after they reportedly burned down their ship and cargo. Unfortunately, the Palau police plane tracking down the Chinese crashed.

Beijing didn’t nuke Palau over the incident.

Such Chinese reactions have led to suggestions that the Philippines should be more aggressive in its maritime patrols particularly along its western seaboard, and in shooing away all foreign devils so Filipinos can fish in peace within our sovereign waters.

The argument is that we shouldn’t worry about lopsided confrontations, and that we should in fact record them for the world to see how David stands up to Goliath.

Driving away foreign devils from our waters has become more challenging in recent years, as the Chinese have taken to sending swarms of more than 200 vessels to the West Philippine Sea. It’s hard to tell which ships are genuinely for fishing and which are back-up Chinese coast guard vessels. The Chinese coast guard, which is under its military, is the standard escort of their fishing fleets.

Filipino fishermen’s organizations say those large boats are the ones that catch the large galunggong outside our country’s municipal waters. The “GG” spawn in Philippine seas but go farther out to deeper waters as they grow in size, with only the smaller ones caught by marginal fishermen within municipal waters.

Instead of driving away the swarms or standing up firmly for our fishermen’s right to the unhampered pursuit of their livelihood in our waters, the Duterte administration acted as apologist for Beijing. Pinoy fishermen who had been bullied by the Chinese, and left to flounder in the high seas after their boats were rammed and sunk, were silenced through ayuda and other dole-outs.

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Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China, which surveys consistently showed never enjoyed Filipinos’ support, meant looking the other way as the Chinese lorded it over the South China Sea.

Duterte sniffed that we weren’t the only one who acquiesced to Chinese activities in contested waters. He asked: why didn’t the US do anything to stop Chinese island-building in the Spratlys?

He wasn’t entirely wrong. For several years, Uncle Sam turned its attention away from the South China Sea after it was kicked out of its bases in the Philippines. This was at a time when the US had not yet finished licking its wounds from its defeat in Vietnam.

Shortly after the US naval base in Subic was shut down, with the Americans pulling out the massive floating drydock that the Philippines had requested they leave behind, the Chinese set up a few huts on the aptly named Mischief (Panganiban) Reef, where Philippine and US troops used to hold military drills.

When Manila protested, Beijing claimed the huts were simply shelters for their fishermen. In subsequent years, as the Philippine desk at the US State Department progressively shrunk to what eventually became, literally, a desk, the Philippines failed to compensate for its loss of the US security umbrella.

We largely watched helplessly, wringing our hands in despair as the Chinese gradually took control of Panganiban Reef, building a garrison and turning it into an artificial island.

Meanwhile, this part of the world fell farther away from Washington’s radar as it became preoccupied with the Islamist terrorist threat targeting mainly the US.

Only when al-Qaeda-inspired Southeast Asian terror cells began bombing nightclubs in Bali and kidnapping foreigners in the Philippines did Uncle Sam begin refocusing on this region.

Today, with China grown into an economic powerhouse with commensurate military might and moving aggressively to project soft power globally, the US has been rebuilding security alliances in what it calls the Indo-Pacific.

Beyond relying on security allies, however, we have to be able to stand up on our own.

As the counytry rebuilds alliances, the new administration can bid goodbye to the previous one’s mindset that might makes right and we should just kowtow and grin and bear it when confronted with superior force.

Anyone who encountered bullies on the way to adulthood realizes that they bully because no one stops them. They bully because they can.

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