South China Sea
TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag (The Freeman) - November 19, 2018 - 12:00am

A recent statement by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has sparked a firestorm both internationally and domestically. Not known to mince words, Duterte said China is now in actual possession of the South China Sea, where small islets and rocky outcrops have been the subject of contentious claims by several countries, including both China and the Philippines.

No less than US vice president Mike Pence publicly disagreed, saying international waters cannot be owned by anyone. The senior justice at the Philippine Supreme Court, Antonio Carpio, went into a more detailed explanation of why he thinks Duterte is wrong, saying China has built on and developed only a certain percentage of the Paracels and Spratlys, not the whole South China Sea.

Others, too, have offered their own ten cents worth to the issue, so I might as well offer mine for good measure. And I think all those who reacted to Duterte, from Pence to Carpio and everyone in between, reacted without paying close attention to what the Philippine president actually said. Also they reacted with a mind to what ought to be and not to the actual reality.

Look again to what Duterte said. He never said China now owns the South China Sea. He said China is now in possession of that vital waterway through which billions of dollars in world trade passes. There is a whale of a difference between owning and possessing.

Everyone needs certain rights or authority to own anything. But to possess anything, one only needs ample muscle, a good dose of gumption, and tons of shamelessness to possess what can never be owned. And that is what happened in the South China Sea, the reality that everyone but Duterte refuses to see.

There was a time when the South China Sea was open but for the conflicting claims of several countries. Even China held back for lack of any workable reason to assert its unjustifiable claim. But it was the Philippines under then president Noynoy Aquino that gave China that reason by sending in "warships" to deal with an incident that was purely civilian in nature.

China responded by sending its own warships to chase away the Philippine gray ships. But China went further. It no longer left the area but instead started building on and developing the islands. But the USA, under then president Barack Obama, whose superior technology and intelligence must have seen what China was up to, lifted not a finger to stop it.

Now China has bases all over. And while the US and allied Navies can still pass through, they have to go through the motions of publicly announcing ahead their intentions, which is very similar to asking permission without admitting that they are. And China, playing its role of possessor to the hilt, responds by accosting and harassing these passing navies.

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