Time to speak out

"It is high time we spoke up against Chinese bullying, instead of advising Filipinos to simply lie back and enjoy it."

Try as this administration has done, there is no way to paper over our vast differences with Beijing over the ownership and control of the West Philippine Sea.

This has been brought home by the illegal presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels believed to be manned by maritime militia in the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, a feature well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Amid calls from Manila to move its ships out of the area, China has dug in, claiming first that the ships are fishing vessels that sought shelter in rough seas, then insisting that the reef constitutes Chinese territory.

This second point was made after Manila pointed out that there have been no storms in the area, and that there was no reason for the Chinese ships to take shelter there.

On previous occasions, such an incident would almost certainly trigger statements of appeasement from the Palace, which has bent over backwards to placate Beijing, even when we were the aggrieved party. The administration has done this all in the name of better relations and the promise of more Chinese loans and investments.

But the administration’s lip service to friendly relations has not stopped China from engaging in patently unfriendly behavior in waters that are rightly ours, as confirmed by a United Nations tribunal in 2016, which found that Beijing’s so-called nine-dash-line claims in the South China Sea were excessive.

Against the backdrop of official simpering from the Palace, it was refreshing to see Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana call a spade a spade.

With uncharacteristic candor, Lorenzana said Sunday the Chinese vessels were in Philippine waters there for nefarious reasons.

“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

Lorenzana pointed to China’s seizure of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef as previous examples of them “brazenly violating” the country’s sovereignty.

On Saturday, Lorenzana rejected China’s claims that the boats parked at Julian Felipe Reef—and where dozens remained last week—had been seeking shelter from bad weather.

“I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there,” he said. “Get out of there.”

It is unclear at this point how much more the government can do, aside from filing yet another diplomatic protest, given China’s military might. We could certainly register our displeasure by taking punitive measures against Chinese officials here who have the temerity to criticize the Defense secretary.

In the face of Chinese aggression, Lorenzana’s statements are a step in the right direction. It is high time we spoke up against Chinese bullying, instead of advising Filipinos to simply lie back and enjoy it.

Topics: Editorial , China , Chinese vessels , West Philippine Sea , Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef , exclusive economic zone
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