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China exploits WPS lull; Meralco's billing 'shock'

The COVID-19 pandemic has diverted the attention of members of the Southeast Asian Nations away from the contentious West Philippine Sea. It is not so with China, which has taken advantage of the relative tranquility.

Vietnam, the chairman of the 2020 Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), ironically saw China's persistent aggression in the disputed waters firsthand.

It is, thus, no surprising for Vietnam to fume over the repeated incursions of China into the West Philippine Sea given ASEAN's responsibility to sustain regional peace, security and stability in this part of Asia.

In early April, a Chinese coast guard ship sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel off the Paracel Islands and in mid-April, Beijing re-assigned the controversial Haiyang Dizhi 8 geological survey ship to an area close to Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China used the same ship in the previous year to pressure international drilling operations near the Vanguard Bank.

Towards the end of April, Beijing stepped up its control over the Paracel and Spratly by establishing administrative units—Xisha and Nansha—as part of Hainan province.

The US is naturally monitoring China's aggression. The Diplomat publication quoted US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus as saying that “China has continued to deploy maritime militia around Spratly Islands, and amid the pandemic, has even announced new research stations on its military bases it has built on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef.”

Asian nations with similar claims on the WPS believe the Chinese vessels assaulting fishermen boats were part of the maritime militia.

Vietnam, meanwhile, has been wary of China’s intrusion into its industries, like infrastructure as in the case of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Hanoi is inclined to withdraw its participation in the infrastructure initiative of China, which includes neighboring countries and ASEAN members Laos and Cambodia. Anti-Chinese sentiment, as a result, is rising in Vietnam that threatens China's business interests in the Southeast Asian country.

The same anti-Chinese sentiment is growing in the Philippines. China is very much perceived here as an aggressor that seeks to control outlying areas in the WPS as well as critical industries serving consumers from power–National Grid Corporation of the Philippines is partly owned by State Grid of China Corporation—to telecommunications through State of China’s ChinaTel and joint venture partner partner DITO Telecoms. 

The Chinese control of industries is raising suspicions of espionage and underground cyberattack. Philippine offshore gaming operations are suspected as fronts for prostitution, drugs and anti-money laundering activities. 

China’s dominance of Philippine infrastructure will also create a greater impact on the economy. A Chinese partner is joining a consortium that will operate Sangley US Naval base in Cavite province.

Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has questioned the bidding for the Kaliwa Dam on alleged rigging to favor China Energy Engineering Corp. of China.

Rising power consumption

Customers of Manila Electric Co. were naturally taken aback by their compounded three-month billings, which the utility could not collect on due the restrictions of the enhanced community quarantine imposed in Metro Manila and the rest of Luzon.

Many customers will actually realize that they were consuming more electricity in the dry months of March, April and May when they locked themselves up at home.

Energy Assistant Secretary Redentor Delola has conceded that residential consumption rose (compared with the decline in the commercial and industrial sectors) during the lockdown period. He added the consumption of the residential sector would likely continue to increase as people opted to remain indoors to avoid being infected by COVID-19.

Meralco, meanwhile, asserted that its meter readings were fairly accurate. Meralco spokesperson Joe Zaldarriaga said “as part of the ECQ period, some March and all April bills were estimated based on the past 3 months’ average daily consumption, following the distribution services and open access rules (DSOAR) issued by the ERC.”

The electricity distributor noted that the three months used as basis—December 2019, January 2020 and February 2020—were considered ‘low consumption’ months compared with the dry months of March, April and May.

“This puts things in perspective. Because of the ECQ... and because of the high temperatures and always staying at home... why are we still surprised that our consumption has gone higher?” Zaldarriaga asked.

The Meralco official explained with most residents at home, appliances like fans and air-conditioners were likely switched on most of the time throughout the day.

“Air-conditioners, which most households would use 6 to 8 hours per day before ECQ, could be used for 12 to 24 hours per day during the ECQ. Also, temperatures are currently at a record high, leading to higher use of cooling devices. Before consumers complain, maybe we should look first at our power consumption habits... our energy use... and maybe that will give us more understanding why there was a rise,” said Zaldarriaga.

“Cooling devices are the heaviest power users... which is a likely reason why our consumption went up recently. It would also help if we all practice energy efficiency,” he added.

Meralco has offered to ease the burden on customers by converting unpaid bills with due date from March 1 to May 15, 2020 (bill date from Feb 21 to May 6) into four equal monthly installments.

“Meralco promises to provide all the possible options for the utmost convenience of the consumer, bringing back a sense of normalcy and security in this time of uncertainty and turmoil, with the pandemic still affecting us all,” he said.

“This is a very good option for consumers who may be struggling somewhat in the ECQ. This gives us a lot of time to prepare and manage our budgets since there is an installment scheme. Basically, we don't need to pay for our power in the past few months, and the DU is still giving us more time in order to prepare to pay June onwards. We have all the possible options at hand,” he said.

Topics: COVID-19 pandemic , West Philippine Sea , 2020 Association of Southeast Nations
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