As good as it gets

TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag - The Freeman

That Filipino fishermen can now fish again in Panatag or Scarborough Shoal without being chased away by the ever-present Chinese Coast Guard ships is as good as it gets. At least for the moment. This is where things stand for us, given the cards we have been dealt. True, this is far from the ideal situation, but things could get even worse if we are not careful.

To many, this may sound very unpatriotic. But sometimes patriotism has to take a backseat when human lives are in peril. That is the reason why sometimes even great nations have to surrender-that the lives of their citizens may be spared from further horror. Right now, it is not sovereignty that is calling out urgently but the need for some of our brothers to fish and put food on the table.

It is in this light that somebody should talk sense to our patriotic Philippine Coast Guard not to proceed with its plan to keep a close watch on our fishermen out there in Panatag, ostensibly as a means to protect them. Ang pagkahambugero lang gyud nato. If that was truly the case, where was the Philippine Coast Guard when the Chinese were harassing the fishermen? They was nowhere to be seen! But now that the Chinese have backed off, magpapapel na ang Coast Guard?

Perhaps the Philippine Coast Guard has forgotten that it was precisely Philippine braggadocio that started this whole mess. Before 2012, everything was all quiet in the South China Sea despite conflicting claims by several countries, including China and the Philippines, to some islets and rock formations in the area. When some issues surfaced, as when fishermen from one country were arrested by another, things were resolved peacefully, through normal civilian processes.

And that was because everybody involved knew well enough to preserve the civilian nature of these interactions. When Chinese fishermen were involved in illegal fishing in the same waters, it was either the Philippine Maritime Police or the Coast Guard that made the apprehensions. And when these fishermen were detained and charged, China did not use its dreaded military might to attack the Philippines.

But then, sometime in 2012, the Philippines was gifted by the United States with a mothballed but resurrected US Coast Guard cutter. It was the first time the Philippines ever acquired such a "big ship" in its arsenal. So mighty suddenly did the Philippines feel at the time that it unilaterally reclassified the cutter as a warship, which of course it was not.

But who is to stop fools from their reverie? And so, led at the time by a president who loved target shooting, the Philippines assumed the air of being on a war footing, all on account of acquiring one cutter it identified as a warship. And so when the opportunity presented itself, the Philippines sent the "warship" to accost several Chinese poachers.

What should have been a normal civilian law enforcement incident became a military showdown. Since it was a "warship" that the Philippines used, China swiftly sent in its real warships and sent the impostor scurrying away-without its prey and without its dignity. Worse, it gave the Chinese the excuse and justification it probably had been waiting for a very long time. With the Philippine "military" provocation, China started grabbing what it can. Thus, we are now where we are.

When we could do nothing to reassert our claim, we went to the UN arbitral court where, quite naturally, we won our case. But what is a ruling against a de facto occupation by a country that, not only does not recognize the ruling, but also has grown so big and powerful that even the United States is afraid to tangle with it except by way of brave but hollow words of protest.

And now, because of a visit by our new president to China, the Chinese are no longer chasing away our fishermen from fishing in our own waters. God knows what our president and his Chinese counterpart talked about, but allowing our fishermen the chance to fish again is, as said at the outset, as good as it gets. There will be time to talk about the bigger issues tomorrow. But right now there will be food on the table. That is what matters for the moment for those who have not eaten.



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