Strategy for the West Philippine Seas
FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras (The Freeman) - April 23, 2019 - 12:00am

Over the past 29 months and as of April 2019, the Chinese military, militia, and fishermen have occupied and taken over three islands which are clearly inside Philippine territorial waters. Civilian infrastructures with military capabilities have been built on some of the islands. The blockading and the swarming of Chinese ships and boats have prevented Philippine authorities from visiting the islands. Filipino fishermen are also restricted from fishing around these islands, and lately it was found out that Chinese fishermen have been harvesting giant clams and have damaged the sea floor and coral reefs of these islands.

So far, our government has been downplaying the current situations in the area. There are always the pronouncements that they will verify the allegations, followed by weak or non-existent protests, while cautioning about our inability to confront and wage war against China. And the potential loss of the Chinese loans, investments, and tourists which have been good for our economy. Our government has not also pushed for the recognition of the United Nations Conference on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) decision rejecting the territorial claim of China on these islands, reasoning that it is unenforceable anyway.

The official position of the Chinese government on their actions in the West Philippine Seas, as pronounced by their embassy here, has been the denial or non-acknowledgment of these aggressive incidents. Our weak protests are not even officially answered by Beijing, and they proceed with whatever they are doing in the area. This is clearly a strategy of a graduated territorial encroachment designed to reach the limit it will be allowed, so that the territorial map will be “fait accompli”, to put them in an advantageous position in future negotiations. This has been done in the aftermath of World War II in Eastern Europe and in the Israel/Palestine Arab world territorial conflicts.

Does this Chinese strategy reflect the sentiment of the Chinese people or just the Chinese government? Anecdotal and sampling of the Chinese in the mainland and overseas Chinese shows that majority of them are not really aware of the issues and incidents in the West Philippine Sea. This is understandable given the controlled media in China, the media restrictions in Hong Kong and other overseas Chinese centers. Only the activist Chinese in Hong Kong, Tibet, or the Uighurs will be concerned about this issue. The drivers of this territorial expansionism could only be the Chinese government and some Chinese business people who benefit from trading ocean resources and the construction in the area.

Given these conditions and realities, what can the Philippine government and the Filipinos really do? We really have to raise the awareness of this issue and the incidents in the West Philippine Sea internationally. The whole world including all the Chinese in the mainland and overseas have to know about them. It is time to re-inform the whole world of the United Nations about the UNCLOS decision on the Philippine territorial waters and the denial of the “nine-dash line” claim of China. This will establish the moral and ethical background of the controversy and establish the negotiating parameters. When the above scenario is in place, there will only a 10% probability of China going to war over this issue. The risk of an international condemnation with the consequent economic and commercial implications would be too great in a shooting war. China will also be exposing too early or too flagrantly its geo-political strategy which would have far reaching implications which may not be in its favor.

The next few months would be a good time for the Philippine government and the people to make a stand in the West Philippine Sea, if it wants to preserve and hold its remaining negotiating position.

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