SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Actions speak louder than words.

It’s good to see countries with shared values going beyond words in recognizing the Philippines’ sovereign rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.

That recognition is on display at the ongoing Balikatan military drills between the Philippines and the United States, with Australia and France participating and 14 countries observing.

The maritime component of Balikatan is meant to uphold freedom of navigation in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Balikatan participants have stressed that the military exercises are not directed at any particular country. That the drills are being conducted for the first time outside Philippine territorial seas, however, is solid recognition of the country’s sovereign rights in waters being grabbed by China.

Territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) from the low-water shoreline. Col. Michael Logico, executive agent of the Balikatan exercises, told “Storycon” on One News that the drills would be conducted all the way to the edges of the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

The EEZ is based on UNCLOS, which underpinned the 2016 arbitral ruling defining the Philippines’ sovereign rights and maritime entitlements in that part of the South China Sea that we call the West Philippine Sea. That ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague also invalidated China’s entire nine-dash-line claim over nearly all of the SCS.

Logico would not identify specific venues for the exercises. But when Storycon pointed out that the Philippines’ EEZ includes areas being claimed by China in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), Logico replied: “Bingo.”

Beijing probably sees the message in the latest iteration of Balikatan: it’s an assertion of the Philippines’ rules-based rightful claim to its EEZ. This encompasses Ayungin (Second Thomas) and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoals, Panganiban or Mischief Reef where China has built an artificial island with a military outpost, and Recto or Reed Bank.

*      *      *

Rodrigo Duterte is not alone in peddling the defeatist argument that the Philippines shouldn’t provoke the Chinese dragon because we can’t survive its withering fire.

But firepower isn’t the only way for the Davids of the world to beat Goliaths. Vietnam has shown this, earning Ho Chi Minh and his people the respect even of former adversaries.

As Uncle Ho famously said, “You can kill 10 of our men for every one of yours, but even at these odds, I will win and you will lose,” because the Vietnamese were fighting for their own land.

The Vietnam War was not the only asymmetrical warfare where Goliath was felled by David.

And who said the Philippines is going to war over the WPS? Armed with the arbitral court ruling, the country can draw on allies’ support to peacefully press Beijing to abide by international rules.

China is currently smarting over the strongly worded statement issued by the Group of 7 leading democracies against its aggressive behavior in the SCS, particularly its attacks using water cannons on Philippine vessels.

Statements from other countries deploring such Chinese activities and citing the arbitral court ruling in favor of the Philippines have always drawn condemnation from Beijing. But the statements failed to stop Chinese bullying in the SCS. Except for annoying Beijing, such statements were as useless as a bucket of warm spit against Chinese water cannons.

For a long time, the world has shown China deference to a fault. Even the World Health Organization was criticized for pussyfooting around China amid allegations that Beijing kept secret from the world the detection of the COVID virus in Wuhan City, until it was too late. And then Beijing placed roadblocks on WHO efforts to determine what happened, which could have speeded up global emergency response.

Statements condemning Chinese maritime aggression, however, can have some impact if backed by acts or measures that will actually be felt by the Chinese.

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One such act that several countries such as Australia and Japan are now undertaking is economic decoupling from China. It falls short of economic sanctions, which will require the agreement of other states for greater impact. And decoupling from the world’s second largest economy can be complicated after decades of dependence on Chinese products, labor, supply chains and the enormous Chinese market. Decoupling is challenging especially for China’s biggest trading partners led by the US.

But if decoupling gains traction and other countries follow suit, it will inevitably hurt the Chinese economy and will be felt by its people. Economic deceleration will mean less funding for the Chinese war machine.

Apart from decoupling to blunt China’s economic coercion, the international community can partner with the Philippines in activities that effectively recognize the country’s EEZ, as defined under UNCLOS and affirmed by the arbitral ruling.

This is what’s happening now in the ongoing Balikatan, and it’s a welcome move.

The question is how China will react to extensive war games in waters it insists are its own.

In the past days, according to reports, the number of Chinese navy, coast guard and militia vessels deployed in the WPS has nearly doubled.

Asked what might happen if these vessels harass the Balikatan participants, Logico said there are rules of engagement for such encounters.

“We are good boys, you know,” Logico told us on Storycon as Balikatan kicked off last Monday. “We are the ones who are abiding by law-based international systems. But nonetheless, we are going there prepared.”

Philippine officials have said they expect Chinese vessels to shadow participants in the Balikatan. What if the Chinese blast the Philippine vessels again with water cannons?

Logico replied: “I don’t think we should insult the intelligence of our adversaries. I don’t think they will be stupid enough to do that.”

What happens after Balikatan is over could be a different story.

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