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Impunity in the South China Sea

With the government either defending, justifying or simply doing nothing about China’s aggressive actions, the country’s giant neighbor has become even bolder to pursue its “creeping invasion” of the disputed territories in the South China Sea.

After occupying, reclaiming and building virtual military bases with airstrips, radar equipment and other installations on several disputed islands in the last few years, the Chinese recently built an alleged maritime rescue center on the Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef), which is part of the Kalayaan Island Group that the Philippines rightfully claims sovereignty over. Instead of lodging a protest, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo ironically says we should be thankful for the Chinese facility because it would help Filipino fishermen in distress.

Recently, US Indo-Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Philip Davidson reported that the China Coast Guard continues to harass and intimidate Filipino fishermen in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).

Based on this and the complaints of Filipino fishermen, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court against Chinese President Xi Jin-ping for “crimes against humanity” for the alleged harassment of Filipino fishermen.

But President Rodrigo Duterte and Presidential Spokesman Salvador  ignored the complaint, saying ICC had no jurisdiction and it was a futile exercise, and reassuring their Chinese friends that relations with China would continue to be warm despite the complaint.

And just last week, the country’s Western Command reported that a flotilla of Chinese vessels, described in news reports as Chinese militia, has been swarming around Pag-asa Island, which is very close to Palawan and is, in fact, officially considered part of the province’s Kalayaan town and home to a small Philippine military contingent and to about 100 Filipino residents, mostly fishermen.

On the previous Chinese transgressions in the disputed islands, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano claimed the DFA had filed “dozens, 50 or even 100 protests” with China, but never released a single copy of the supposed protests. How can Cayetano produce a copy when it was obvious he was lying and couldn’t even remember if dozens or 100 protests had been filed?

On the latest report that hundreds of Chinese vessels are swarmed around Pag-asa Island, Foreign Affairs Secretary Toedoro Locsin also claimed to have filed a “salvo of diplomatic notes” with the Chinese government, but when pressed to present a copy, Locsin, who has taken on his boss’ penchant for “colorful” language, merely said: “You have my word for it, and that is all you get. Manigas na kayo na nagda-doubt pa!” (Drop dead, you doubters.)

Panelo later thumbed down the request to make the protest public and urged the people to just “take the word of the public officials,” which unfortunately is not easy to do considering the track record of this administration on transparency.

Take for example the case of the “Operation Tokhang” reports. The Philippine National Police and the Office of the Solicitor General Jose Calida has been asked to present the official reports on the illegal drug operations for a long time now. Calida first promised to present the report to the Supreme Court but reneged on the offer citing national security.

The high tribunal had to order Calida and PNP last Tuesday to submit to the court the police reports on the killings of more than 4,000 people in Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.

But back to China. Before Locsin claimed that he had sent a “salvo of diplomatic notes” to China, Panelo said the government would “ask politely” why the Chinese vessels were in the area of Pag-asa Island. On the same breath, he downplayed the presence of the Chinese militia, first claiming that there were only 275 ships and not 600 as claimed by the military, and then saying that the Chinese were perhaps merely watching the area.

But based on how the Chinese slowly, but gradually took over the disputed islets in the South China Sea, it is not farfetched to suspect that the Chinese are eyeing the island, which is not just an islet or reef, but a big and inhabitable island.

Their presence seems to send a clear signal to the Philippine military, which is in the process of repairing military installations there, to back off.

“This is a straightforward intimidation tactic—to interrupt Filipino maritime traffic in very close proximity to Thitu (Pag-asa Island),” said Alexander Neill, Shangri-la Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Neill said China’s aggressive action on Pag-asa is because of the “inability of Filipino forces to react to probing tactics by Chinese vessels, and on the political front by President Duterte who has warmed to China and is prepared to dismiss the threat by China to Philippines territory.”

He said the maritime militia serves as “eyes and ears” for the People’s Liberation Army.

“It is also a warning that China has the potential to take the islands with little difficulty, should they choose to,” he added.

Another report that should be a cause for Filipinos is the sudden appearance of a Chinese-manned dredging ship near the coastal town of Lobo in Batangas. Apparently, the ship had no prior authority to sail into the Batangas coast, but its appearance revealed a plan by a private company to dredge sand from the Lobo river to build a runway of the Hongkong International Airport, according to the Inquirer. But one wonders if the sand is not going to be used to reclaim more islands in the South China Sea. Lulutuin tayo sa sarili nating mantika, as they say in Pilipino.

The dredging ship’s appearance also stresses the impunity with which the Chinese, including private companies, are violating Philippine laws and sovereignty obviously because of the way the Duterte administration are coddling up to the Chinese. Chinese companies have been found to be bringing in illegal Chinese workers to the detriment of Filipino workers but the government merely shrugged it off.

In the wake of all these continuing aggressive actions by the Chinese in the South China Sea, the Philippine government continues to reassure Beijing that everything’s okay and that our relations with China continue to be warm. In a campaign rally in Malabon on Tuesday, Duterte said China just wants to become a friend of the Philippines, as he downplayed Chinese aggressions in the South China Sea.

Even Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was very “friendly” with China during her presidency, chimed in last week during a forum in that developing countries like the Philippines should look to China as partner, not a threat.

All these developments make us wonder why it appears that this administration is so beholden to China. If we look at Duterte’s key supporters in the presidential campaign—the Marcos family and Arroyo—it should not surprise us that they, too, are known friends of China during their reign. Just wondering.

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Topics: Everyman , South China Sea , China
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