China united, Philippines divided

"What is disheartening is our divided response to the challenges posed by China to us."


In the Reed Bank ramming of a Philippine boat by who are most likely Chinese fishermen-militia, one of the most reported exchanges was between the Filipino fishermen and the Vietnamese that rescued them: “Vietnam. Philippines. Friends.”

This is not lost in translation and is as clear as day: Vietnam is aligned with us in our territorial dispute with China (even as we have our own dispute with the former) and that is because Vietnam and Vietnamese fishermen, have also been at the receiving end of similar behavior from China.

Would it be right then to describe the Philippine-China relations in similar words albeit the opposite: “China. Philippines. Enemies.”?

I propose that such a framing is foolish and would not be helpful. This is a better summary of the events of the last week: “China united, Philippines divided.”

Let’s be clear what happened with the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat Gem-Ver by Chinese ship Yuemaobinyu 42212. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, what happened is “a quantum escalation of China’s aggressive acts against the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea.”

This is the first time it has happened. And because of our tepid official response to it, and the way the government pressured our fishermen to doubt their own accounts, it will not be the last.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana initially released a strong statement condemning the Chinese fishing vessel for abandoning the 22 Filipino fishermen. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin likewise tweeted that he “fired off a diplomatic protest” the previous day, June 12, although the Department of Foreign Affairs has not released an official statement providing further details. Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo weighed in and described the Chinese behavior as “uncivilized as it is outrageous” for them to abandon the distressed crew of Gem-Ver. He added, “Such act of desertion is inhuman as it is barbaric.”

There was at first unity in the national outrage against what was done to our fishermen.

But then, President Duterte, after what seems to be an eternity, issued a statement dismissing the occurrence as just “a little maritime incident.” Other officials, who days earlier condemned the Chinese crew for abandoning the Filipino fishermen, followed suit in trivializing the incident. While meeting with the fishermen in Mindoro, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said that if the Chinese fishing vessel intentionally rammed Fishing Boat Gem-Ver, they would have left bigger damage. In a not-so-surprising turnaround, the fishermen seemed to retract their prior statements after meeting with Secretary Emmanuel Piñol who said that the fishermen were now “uncertain” whether their boat was intentionally sunk by the Chinese vessel.

The Reed Bank ramming gave us an opportunity to unite around our national interest. There is actually a strong consensus among ordinary Filipinos that we must act with resolute determination against China to defend our national territory. But the government did not build on that. Instead, the administration and its supporters sided with China against its own people—the fishermen and our former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.

In contrast, what we have seen in the last two weeks (and frankly, for decades now) is a united China—with a coherent strategy to dominate the region and that employs consistent actions to assert what it believes is its prerogative. This is reflected in its diplomacy in the ASEAN where it has effectively stopped the regional body from supporting its members (Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia) in their dispute with China, in its aggressive economic and military activities in the disputed territory (the reclamation work, the building of artificial islands, and the use of fish fleets as militias), and in the blatant use of immigration controls in Hong Kong (as we have seen in the case of former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and of Del Rosario who were clearly harassed for their actions in the International Criminal Court against President Xi of China).

I actually do not resent China’s actions. I expect that behavior from a superpower. If we were smarter, we could ally with China in quite a few things not just for domestic but also for regional and global issues. In fact, I have personally seen how powerful such collaboration is in issues like marine pollution and climate change. Because of the work I have done with the Chinese government and with academic colleagues in the last 20 years, I only have respect for China. That China is united in its engagement with us on our dispute with them in the West Philippine Sea is not a surprise for me.

It is amazing that in the recent incidents in the Reed Bank and in Hong Kong, we cannot even uphold our interest and support our countrymen. Instead, the Duterte government has abandoned our fishermen and has been critical of our former officials, while tolerating, if not praising, the actions of China and Hong Kong.

On how to move forward, whether to do a join, tri-partite, third party, or domestic probe, we cannot even agree.

I am not surprised that the Department of Foreign Affairs has decided to discontinue this practice of allowing former high-level diplomats to use courtesy diplomatic passports. Such practice was as good only as we are courteous to each other. Because that era has changed and we hate and dislike each other more than we are angry or upset at the Chinese, discontinuing what I thought was a good practice is probably for the best.

Indeed, what is disheartening is our divided response to the challenges posed by China to us. In my view, both the Aquino and Duterte administrations have employed strategies that serve to disunite our people instead of unifying us before a grave and serious threat. While I support our legal actions against China that led to the filing of the arbitration case against China, it was very clear to me that there was no strong political consensus on those actions. It might have been more prudent if the Aquino government paid attention to that aspect and got the business, diplomatic, and political establishments behind its actions. Because this was not done, there was little protest when President Duterte reversed course and pivoted to China after he was elected.

China is a big, powerful country. We are weaker—militarily and economically, although the law is on our side. But China is united while we are divided. Guess who will prevail if our disunity continues?

Facebook Page: Professor Tony La Viña Twitter: tonylavs

Topics: Reed Bank , China , Philippines , Hong Kong , Xi Jinping , International Criminal Court
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