Finally, a different tone is emerging from the Department of Foreign Affairs on China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.
On Saturday, Foreign Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin said the Philippines must protest China’s establishment of a maritime rescue center on the contested Kagitingan Reef in the Spratly Islands. Locsin, just recently the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, said he agreed with the position of Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio that the country must lodge a protest as not doing so could mean consent to China’s recent aggressive action in the disputed waters.
"This means we are recognizing that China has a right to occupy and use Fiery Cross Reef. Occupation and use are acts of sovereignty. This contradicts our claim that we have sovereignty over Fiery Cross Reef," Carpio said.
Locsin, however, was vague about filing a formal protest, which the government should have done immediately upon China’s pronouncement that it has built the structure. In a tweet -- hardly the proper way for the country’s top diplomat to state his objection -- Locsin said he would rather voice his protest on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly.
Still, Locsin’s tweet—statement, if you may‚—was an improvement over his previous position that he was not keen on filing protests against China. "Every time you send a note verbale and no one responds to it, what does that look like? When you keep sending those notes – I know some people say, you just keep on sending them – what I keep calling it is banging your head against the wall," he said then.
Also, his promise to bring the protest to the UN floor was completely different from the official reaction from Malacanang on reports that China has constructed a maritime rescue center in the South China Sea, or what our government wants to call the West Philippine Sea.
Instead of protesting, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in his usual light tone that we should even be thankful to China. "Maybe we should be thankful," Panelo said. "That could help seamen in distress, it can help everybody."
Even Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the man tasked to defend the country’s national security and sovereignty, thinks along the same line as Panelo, saying that the defense department would “do nothing” because “it would help seamen in distress.”
So, will the Philippines file a formal protest or not? From the looks of it and based on the policy of appeasement President Duterte has followed on China, there will be no formal protest. It is even doubtful that beyond his tweets, Locsin would even pursue his promise of protesting China’s actions before the world’s delegates in the world body.
And this non-action is precisely what worries Carpio and other foreign policy experts.
In the usual propaganda line of the Chinese government, China’s Ministry of Transport announced it has opened the new facility on Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef). “The center will offer better support to maritime rescue operations in the southern part of the South China Sea,” the ministry said.
"We should protest because Fiery Cross Reef is part of the geologic features we claim in the Kalayaan Island Group. If we do not protest, then we impliedly consent to China's act of putting up a maritime rescue center there," Carpio said. "This means we are recognizing that China has a right to occupy and use Fiery Cross Reef. Occupation and use are acts of sovereignty. This contradicts our claim that we have sovereignty over Fiery Cross Reef."
Maritime expert Dr. Jay Batongbacal, who along with Carpio has been warning the Philippines and whoever cares to listen about China’s true intent in the South China Sea, calls the propaganda line China’s gray zone tactics that aim to put a “soft face” to its aggressive behavior in the disputed waters to downplay or maybe even hide their military activities in the area.
The Chinese are making it appear that they are, in fact, helping, and not restricting, maritime navigation in the area by providing assistance to vessels operating in the area. The ministry said that, in fact, two rescue ships that it had sent to Zamora Reef have rescued 16 people and two ships in eight rescue operations.
We all know, of course, that these installations that China has built on reclaimed islands are not for civilian purposes, as China claims, but to project China’s military power over the region. Independent agencies have released photos of missile launchers and radar-jamming equipment in these structures. There is also no doubt that the missile shelters, runways, ports, and aircraft hangars built in recent years are military installations and not for civilian use.
Batongbacal said China will continue to give the islands a “soft face” in “an attempt to look good to create a more benign image in the region especially in light of the ongoing competition with the United States.”
Both Batongbacal and Carpio warned that the building of the supposed maritime rescue center, the weather stations and the implementation of alleged ecological protection programs in the area are all designed to create a sense of civilian administration and control of the contested area, which are essential in establishing sovereignty over the islands.
Either Panelo and Lorenzana have fallen prey to China’s propaganda line or they are part of the whole shebang as part of the Duterte administration’s policy of appeasement with China.
While the Duterte administration continues to profess trust for China, Filipinos have repeatedly shown overwhelming distrust for China in surveys after surveys. But did it ever matter to Duterte and his friends?
In the meantime, China continues to creep into the country’s sovereignty without a nary a word from our government except to thank its benefactor.
Mr. Abelgas is a former managing editor of Manila Standard. He now lives in the US but remains a key observer of Philippine events.