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Bearding the dragon

"Perhaps the Chinese were afraid that our guys would start hurling potent anting-anting at them."



A lot of people are understandably upset over the recent ramming of a Filipino fishing vessel—one of those wood-and-outrigger contraptions we’re familiar with—by a Chinese fishing vessel—one of their much larger, steel-hulled boats that unfortunately we’ve also come to know just as well since they started swarming like unwelcome flies into our waters in recent weeks.

To top it off, the Chinese boat sailed off into the darkness after the incident without bothering to rescue our fishermen from the waters—a fundamental violation of maritime practice as well as basic decency. The Chinese have claimed that their vessel wanted to avoid being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats in the area. Perhaps they were afraid that our guys would start hurling potent anting-antings at them.

To their dubious credit, the Chinese embassy immediately took down from their Facebook page the official statement they’d released earlier, to near-universal ridicule. That they even put it up in the first place says a lot about their inexperience with the practice of free public expression, as well as their unfamiliarity with how the locals think.

I’m told that the US embassy has three times as many analysts as the Chinese one does. This is a ratio that obviously should be reversed if the Chinese are serious about wooing us away from growing public hostility to their maritime bullying.

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The recent riots in Hong Kong have prompted some of our local critics to ask why Duterte can’t be more aggressive against the Chinese. As a result of those violent protests, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam had decided to suspend new legislation that would make it easier to extradite criminal offenders from Hong Kong to China.

Right on cue, Inquirer columnist Winnie Monsod challenged Duterte in her column: “If the Chinese themselves (outside of China) are looking at China with a jaundiced eye, shouldn’t we learn from them? If they think the only way is to push back and get public opinion on their side, why are we so craven?”

Ma’m Winnie’s rhetorical question begs what ought to be obvious: Public opinion already IS on our side. What we don’t have on our side on maritime issues is official Chinese government policy, and that is about as unmovable as you can expect from an officially communist, one-party state.

In Hong Kong, a lot of the pressure to appease the rioters came from the business community, which, as anywhere else, abhors the unpredictable. And in the volatile US-China relationship, it’s the current trade war that now dominates the agenda. The Hong Kong extradition issue would interest the US only if it suited their trade war strategy to take an aggressive public stance.

So far, in fact, they haven’t. And as pointed out by Prof Wu Xinbo, head of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, “Beijing will not do much other than making a diplomatic protest [on the Hong Kong issue], as the US has not done anything about it yet.”

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Unfortunately, in our neck of the woods, we crossed that bridge a long while back, when PNoy decided to go very public with the UNCLOS ruling and use it as a saber to rattle the Chinese. Pushed against the wall and threatened with loss of face over a threat it deems existential—the active presence of US submarines within striking distance from the South China Sea waters—the Beijing government responded predictably, albeit ham-handedly.

The other day, US Ambassador Sung Kim weighed in with what, for a diplomat, is a fairly strong promise of US support under the Mutual Defense Treaty. Quoting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the ambassador said on TV that “because the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, under the treaty itself, any armed attack on Filipino vessels, Filipino aircraft will trigger our obligations under the MDT”.

Of course, the ramming of a fishing vessel is not an armed attack. And as many people know, triggering the US obligations under that treaty still requires a variety of preconditions, including approval by the US Congress. That is only natural, and to be expected, from any country.

This is why we would remind critics like Ma’m Winnie that it’s still more important to prepare for any armed conflict with China instead of relying on some treaty no matter how well-intentioned. Among the steps that we should be, or already are, taking:

Modernization of the AFP - In particular, the Navy and the Air Force—the two services who would bear the brunt of a maritime conflict—are busily, but quietly, buying more ships, planes, armaments, and support equipment.

Mandatory ROTC in Grades 11-12 – A priority bill from Duterte that the Senate still hasn’t acted upon, this lays the basis for a civilian militia with basic military skills and—just as important—the kind of civic spirit that will be needed.

Two-year military service after adolescence—Since many of us are so admiring of the defensive capabilities of countries like Israel and South Korea, we should go all the way in emulating their two-year conscription period for every young citizen, male and female.

In the event that an invader cannot be repelled outside our borders—or if long-range missile strikes destroy key military assets and troop concentrations—then the alternative of protracted, land-based militia warfare may be the only recourse left to us. If we’re serious about walking our talk, it’s a contingency we should be preparing for, even now, before our aggressive talkativeness runs too far ahead of us.

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In today’s reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (8: 1-9), the Evangelist begins to develop a “theology of giving” by citing the Christians of Macedonia as an exemplar of generosity: “In a severe test of affliction, the abundance of their joy…overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”

It is through the collection plate that Christians demonstrate both their charity and the unity of the Church. But the larger context is provided in the Gospel (Mt 5: 43-48) where Jesus admonishes His followers: “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.”

This is an astounding command that seems to confound common sense and go against the very grain of our nature. Yet it is precisely this nature of ours that stands between us and the Father. Seen in this light, the Mass commentator’s usual reminder to “please give generously” during collection takes on a whole new meaning.

Readers can write me at [email protected]

Topics: Chinese fishing vessel , Rodrigo Duterte , Sung Kim , Winnie Monsod
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