New approaches

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Finally, after six years of kowtowing to Beijing and yellow-bellied cowering over the imagined prospect of China pulverizing Philippine forces, the country is taking the dispute to other arenas.

Yesterday, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla announced that the Philippines would file an environmental case against China before an international tribunal, for the “innumerable and immeasurable” damage it has caused to natural resources in Philippine waters.

Apart from this tack, the Marcos administration appears to be moving to reduce the vulnerability of the Philippine economy to Chinese economic coercive measures.

Chinese official development assistance loan facilities have high interest rates compared to those offered by other countries such as Japan. These days it looks like several big-ticket projects funded by Chinese ODA are being dropped by the Philippines.

A report this week said the Department of Finance had informed Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian that the Philippines is no longer interested in the ODA from Beijing for the P83-billion Mindanao Railway Phase 1.

The report said the government is also pulling out of the Philippine National Railways South Long Haul, a.k.a. the PNR Bicol.

Such withdrawals, if replicated in other recipients of Chinese ODA, can affect Beijing’s vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, through which the Chinese had hoped to project soft power through infrastructure-related investments in about 150 countries and organizations.

These are encouraging steps in decoupling from China. People had been saying this throughout the Duterte administration, that instead of kowtowing to Beijing in hopes of benefiting from stronger ties with the world’s second largest economy, the Philippines should go in the opposite direction, reducing dependence on Chinese trade and ODA.

The Australians have been doing this, according to Ambassador HK Yu, after they were subjected to trade “coercive measures” by Beijing, which affected up to $20 billion worth of Australian exports to China.

Other countries including the Philippines have suffered from the same Chinese economic coercion over the past years. This is beginning to backfire, however, as countries show economic resilience and China is seen to be an unreliable trading partner.

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On the maritime front, we commend the Philippine Coast Guard for refusing to be cowed by Goliath. Our boats, whether private or belonging to the PCG, look puny beside all those China Coast Guard vessels, but we’re gaining ground in international opinion.

Beyond risking being rammed by those big ships, what else can be done to uphold our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea?

The government can step up the timeline for joint patrols with allies, as part of freedom of navigation operations. It shouldn’t matter if the foreign patrol vessels are military, since the China Coast Guard (unlike our civilian PCG) is under their military command, directly under President Xi Jinping. Those CCG maneuvers against our ships around Ayungin are military activities.

We have the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to support our claim in that area; China has only its imaginary nine-dash-line, now expanded to 10, to show the world.

Apart from this, as retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has pointed out, there are old maps showing what constitutes Philippine sovereign waters, and treaties to back them up.

So far, we have been receiving many expressions of support for our cause in the West Philippine Sea. Recently there was the statement from key members of the foreign relations committee at the US House of Representatives.

Yesterday reports from Washington said US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese issued a statement opposing interference with routine Philippine maritime operations around Ayungin Shoal as well as other destabilizing actions in the South China Sea.

Aside from the US and Australia, with which we have a visiting forces agreement, we have received expressions of support from US treaty ally Japan, our biggest aid donor; the European Union as a grouping along with some of its member states individually, and Canada.

It helps that journalists are being allowed to tag along by the PCG in its resupply missions to the troops on the BRP Sierra Madre, our outpost grounded on Ayungin Shoal. It is easier to illustrate how Goliath is bullying David.

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There are speculative reports that the Chinese are waiting for the rusty World War II transport, which looks like a prop on “Waterworld” or a “Mad Max” movie, to crumble and disintegrate into the sea – which will be soon.

When this happens, the Chinese can then grab Ayungin and develop it into yet another artificial island, the way it turned those huts that it built on Panganiban “Mischief” Reef ostensibly as fishermen’s shelters into a multi-story military building sitting on an artificial island.

The arbitration court in had ruled in 2016 that the Philippines has sovereign rights over Ayungin, Panganiban and Recto Bank.

That ruling has been recognized by the countries that have been expressing support for the Philippines in the dispute.

But throughout much of the six years of the Duterte administration, the Philippine government treated the arbitral award like a dirty family secret, a source of national embarrassment.

Rodrigo Duterte also feuded with the countries that could have exerted some non-military forms of pressure to compel compliance with the ruling. Instead China enjoyed free rein to embark on a frenzied artificial island-building, facing little challenge even when its vessels sank a Philippine fishing boat and left the Filipinos to flounder in the high seas.

For allowing itself to be buggered, what did the Philippines get in return? Three “friendship” bridges across the Pasig River.

Now the new administration is pursuing new tacks.

On multiple fronts, there are ways of compelling adherence with international rules and enforcing a rules-based order, without armed confrontation. Hurray for this new administration.

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