Deliberate or accidental

Rescued Filipino fishermen and their destroyed fishing boat.

The ramming of an anchored Filipino fishing boat F/B Gem-Ver 1 on June 9 with 22 personnel near Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and leaving them in peril continues to raise the question whether or not the incident was deliberate or accidental.

That the much bigger and powerful Chinese fishing vessel continued its route and deserted the area as if nothing happened even raises a more profound question about the duty to rescue persons in distress at sea.

But, was the destruction of the F/B Gem-Ver 1 really deliberate or was it accidental?

Until an in-depth neutral third party investigation is conducted we will never know the truth about what really happened.

What seems to muddle the initial account of the incident is the way it is being reported by the media. When different observations and conjectures are being added it distorts the truth that it becomes at times incredible whether or not some events, as told, really happened.

Take for instance the statement/description given that after noticing that the Chinese vessel had hit something, that it turned around to verify what it was and found out that it just sunk a fishing boat with people in the sea shouting for help, only to be abandoned.

If this was the case then the Chinese crew members should be categorically condemned for their barbaric and criminal act. But then again, in the same vein, it was reported that they hurriedly left the area afraid that other Filipino fishermen may gang up on them if they linger further. So, which is which now?

With China now forcefully claiming and converting into a military garrison what is rightfully ours in the WPS, while we leave our fate to God, would they still have the brazenness to destroy the livelihood of our fisher folks?

I for one would like to believe that if China can claim the whole of the South China Sea (SCS), of which the WPS is part of it, with impunity and construct sophisticated military bases even inside Philippine territorial waters just so it can control this part of the world, then one could just imagine how insignificant a third world country and the Filipino race is to them. Talking about arrogance, abuse and disrespect despite the altruism the Philippine government has shown them.

But there is really nothing much that can be done about the maritime incident. Unless proven without doubt by a neutral maritime investigative body that it was accidental rather than deliberate, then so be it. Otherwise the incident will always be construed not only that China’s vessel is culpable for deliberately ramming the Filipino fishing vessel, but that falsehood is also being rammed down our throat.

This is the price we are paying for being poor and powerless.

 

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Fishing moratorium

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

It not only boggles my mind, but I am also disappointed, as all Filipinos should be, that the outspoken Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr did not chime in to support Hanoi’s opposition against Beijing’s imposition of its annual fishing moratorium in the South China Sea, which also includes the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

This after the Chinese agricultural ministry announced the start of the annual fishing ban on May 1 and will last until August 16.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry condemned China’s unilateral fishing ban, pointing out that it violates Hanoi’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and contradicts the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“Vietnam opposes and resolutely rejects China’s unilateral fishing ban decision,” Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang said.

But since China does not honor the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) nor does it respect the July 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated Beijing’s nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea then I would suppose that this fishing ban will be imposed strictly.

What is even unconscionable here is that the unilateral fishing ban also violates the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations.

So in the same manner that Vietnamese fishermen are prevented from fishing in what it considers as its own territory, the Paracel Islands, Filipino fishermen has also to observe the fishing moratorium decreed by China in our country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), most especially in the rich fishing ground of Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal).

It is therefore in this context that I wish the tough talking and candid Locsin could have issued a resounding protest echoing that of the Vietnamese government, if only to remind the contemptuous Chinese officials that we are a sovereign nation that respects the rule of law and not their subjects.

It is bad enough that the Filipino fishermen are being harassed and monitored closely by Chinese forces in their own fishing ground, but it is even worse that a despotic unilateral fishing ban is demanded on poor and powerless nation like the Philippines whose daily catches could not compare with the volume of catch per day China’s armada of fishing vessels make in the disputed areas of the WPS.

Not being able to go fishing until August 16 is a long time for folks who rely on this kind of livelihood to take care of their families. But it is never too long for Locsin to come out and lodge his protest.

A Songbird’s discordant voice

This is a compelling interjection I am making after reading Asia’s Songbird Regine Velasquez’s remark insulting the intelligence of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin when the latter said that the Philippines and China must not go to war over some kind of shellfish, but that China should just pay for it.

The bone of contention here is actually about the giant clams being harvested by China with impunity in the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), which the Philippines claims to be part of its territory. Note that this is the same controversial shoal that used to be the rich source of livelihood and haven for Filipino fishermen during inclement weather until China took control of it, claiming it as belonging to their territorial waters in the South China Sea (SCS).

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin

“I am not going down in history as a clam defender, okay? It’s a complaint; we’re looking into it; but these are just fucking food; no one goes to war for clams (maybe Oysters of Locquemariaquer) but they just happen to be OUR food. They should pay for them like in fish market,” Locsin said.

This of course did not sit well for Velasquez especially that it sounded to her more like a sick joke coming from an intelligently irrepressible Locsin. I don’t think she has a clear knowledge of who Locsin is really.

“Ang akala ko pa naman matalino ka. Ako ay simpling tao lamang na may simpleng pagiisip,” Velasquez said in a tweet on Friday. (And I thought you were smart/clever. I am just a simple person with simple thoughts.)

“These people are invading our territory they are not just taking food sinisira nila ang ating karagatan!!!!” (…. they are destroying our seas!!!), she added.

Well, the reality is that having “simple thoughts” is what makes war, and that is precisely what Locsin is trying to avoid knowing both the economic and military might of China that our country is being subjected to.

Thus, it is best for the Songbird of Asia to just concentrate on what she does best and leave the diplomatic tussle to the knowledgeable. Her discordant voice in foreign relation is distasteful and therefore unwelcome, more so that her rhetoric has no basis at all.

Former Pres. Benigno Aquino

The fact is that had the Aquino government in 2012 handled the Scarborough Shoal controversy against China with utmost prudence, the rich fishing ground of Panatag Shoal could still have been accessible to our fishermen today. Note that the shoal has also been the fishing grounds of Chinese fishermen and there existed a ‘peaceful coexistence’ between them until the Philippine Navy surveillance ship started flexing its muscles and ordered their sailors to board eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in the shoal’s lagoon. They tried to arrest the Chinese fishermen for illegal fishing and “harvesting endangered marine species.” However, two China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) ships come to their rescue creating a standoff.

What made the standoff even unwise is when then President Aquino ordered the frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a newly refurbished warship from the US Coast guard, to the area to confront the Chinese at Panatag.

What happened next was that more CMS ships entered the shoal, bringing with them a flotilla of 31 Chinese fishing boats and 50 dinghies. The number of CMS vessels in the days that followed increased to 10.

Outwitted, the the BRP Gregorio del Pilar left on the pretext that it was going “to replenish fuel and food provisions” in its base in La Union.But why send a warship when CMS vessels are officially civilian, part of its Ministry of Transport’s Maritime Safety Administration?

Since then no Filipino ship or fishing vessel has been able to enter the shoal, now occupied by CMS vessels and Chinese fishing boats. The Chinese imposed a 15-nautical mile restriction perimeter around the shoal, and prevents any vessel from going into the shoal’s lagoon.

Disrespecting with impunity

President Duterte and the Pag-asa Island from the air.

With the military might of China well entrenched in the West Philippine Sea, the Chinese arrogance and aggressiveness towards our country has never been as opprobrious as it is today.

It seems that China’s unimpeded stay in the disputed waters have given the occupants the entitlement to do what it pleases them even to the extent of violating and disrespecting the rights of a poor and disadvantaged country like the Philippines.

But we can only take so much of the despotic attitude of China’s leadership, thus, it is only appropriate that President Rodrigo Duterte be commended for standing up against China at the time when his strong leadership is urgently needed.

This, after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has reported that a surge of Chinese vessels have been circling Pag-asa Island since January 2019.

Accordingly, this corroborates an earlier report by the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative that China deployed Chinese militia to the vicinity of said island after the Philippines began building a beaching ramp for large navy cargo ships for easier unloading of construction materials for the repairs of military facility like the Rancudo Airfield and even the building of a safe harbor which is a project of the local government.

Pag-asa Island is a 37-hectare island, the largest of the Kalayaan Island Group territories claimed by the Philippines and is part of the municipality of Palawan. According to the 2015 census, it has a population of 184 people. Aside from an airstrip, it has a commercial communications tower, power generators, a 5-bed lying-in clinic and a small elementary school.

There is no doubt that the commanding presence of Chinese flotilla in the area is not only to monitor what is being done in the island, but its show of intimidating force is simply sending an explicit message and warning that it is the Filipinos that are the intruders in what is now their exclusive maritime territory according to their own historical facts, which for all intents and purposes have been debunked by The Hague tribunal.

Each one of the militia vessel seems to echo the mantra of unjustified ownership that ‘what is ours is ours and what is yours is ours too’!

This abusive and despotic behavior certainly does not sit well with Filipinos as China’s action not only violates our country’s sovereignty, but most of all it disrespects with impunity human value and decency.

Thankfully, it has finally dawn on President Duterte that even his deportment as being non-confrontational towards China in the WPS is being taken advantage of and, thus, it is inspiriting to know that the president is reacting the way many people wants him to do, including those in the opposition, by strongly pushing back at the Chinese machination in Pag-asa Island.

It is good to receive investment help from China to finance Duterte’s economic Build, Build, Build agenda, which could be the start of an infrastructure boom in the Philippines, but it is quite the contrary when the dignity of the Filipino, as a race, is being debased and disrespected with impunity in his own turf.

Disagreement over the PH-US MDT

 

Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana

I am writing about the disagreement between Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr over the existing Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty because I find it interesting, if not intriguing.

Interesting and intriguing in the sense that it is seemingly putting Pres. Duterte in a predicament where he has to choose who between the two trusted Cabinet members has a better understanding of the country’s present situation vis-à-vis China’s militarization in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

What is important to remember here is that when the PH-US MDT was signed on August 30, 1951, in Washington, D.C. between representatives of both countries, the overall accord stated that the Philippines and the United States will come to each other’s aid if attack by an external party.

But, while Lorenzana has been seeking for a review of the treaty since last year, questioning the validity or effectiveness of the treaty, as it applies now to the disputed areas in the WPS, Locsin, however, does not find the necessity or the urgency to have it done.

“My own view is no. I believe in the old theory of deterrence. I have been an old man, I’ve engaged in the Cold War for longer than you. In vagueness lies the best deterrence,” Locsin said when asked whether he was seeking a review of the MDT.

This statement was made by Locsin in a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the latter’s brief visit to the country on March 1, after the second historic meeting between Pres. Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. It was on this occasion that Pompeo assured the country that the US considers the South China Sea (SCS) as covered by the MDT. If it is of any consolation to anybody, we just have to remember that the WPS is part of the SCS.

Also that Pompeo affirmed the assurance of the Trump administration’s “true commitment to making sure these seas (South China Sea) remain open.”

Locsin’s statement apparently did not sit well with Lorenzana. It got even more vexing for Lorenzana upon hearing Locsin’s argument that the “vagueness” of the MDT is what makes it more effective as a “deterrent” to attacks against the Philippines.

Whatever the outcome of the disagreement between Lorenzana and Locsin over the PH-US MDT and whomever Duterte chooses which side to favor, the fact remains that it will not change the way the US looks at the strategic location of the Philippines in protecting the vital US and homeland security interests.  This alone is a preemptive view for China to act accordingly in the disputed SCS.

West Philippine Sea Victory Day

Senator Leila de Lima

It is lamentable that progressive and powerful countries in the world advocating strong support or protection for democratic principles have remained silent and noncommittal towards our plight over China’s egregious military build-up in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

But what makes it even more ridiculous now is a bill filed by Senator Leila de Lima seeking to declare July 12 of every year as the “West Philippine Sea Victory Day”.

I mean why call for a yearly moral victory celebration when China has positioned itself intrinsically at will to continue bullying us?

Senate Bill 2201 may be right in describing the arbitral tribunal’s decision on July 12, 2016 as a landmark victory for the country when it favored the country’s sovereign rights in the WPS, as stipulated by the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty which, among other things, defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources.

In effect, the same tribunal invalidated China’s expansive claims ruling that it had no legal basis to claim the area within its nine-dash lines demarcation.

Ironically the opposite has happened because even as the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was resolving the issue of sovereign rights over the disputed waters, China was busy developing the man-made islands into military bases with deep water ports and airports, after which all sorts of armaments were installed.

So while China would consider the area within the nine-dash line its territory, other countries were assured, if not pacified, that they would still have freedom of navigation,

How could de Lima, therefore, say it is a victory worth commemorating every July 12th when it is hollow and ineffectual, to say the least? Let us not fool ourselves.

What I am saying is that for as long as China stays militarily and permanently entrenched in our territorial waters and has claimed the rights to activities ranging from fishing to prospecting and mining for energy or mineral resources, while nobody in the world can admonish its hegemonic ambitions in the area, then one can never declare himself victorious in the true sense of the word.

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China’s maritime rescue center

 

SC Associate Justice Antonio Carpio

Aside from the expanding militarization of the artificial islands built by China in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), what got the attention lately of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio is the news that China had constructed what it called a “maritime rescue center” in Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef), which is a disputed territory.

Carpio’s concern is that the Duterte’s government should not just let this pass, meaning that it should file a protest so that it cannot be said that we have consented to China’s act of putting up a maritime rescue center, whatever it means, or else it might be interpreted that we are recognizing China’s right to occupy and use Fiery Cross Reef when it is the Philippines that has the exclusive rights over it.

There is no doubt that Carpio’s legal advice is worth heeding for it is strengthening and upholding the country’s claim of the WPS according to the rules established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Carpio’s recommendation also seeks to give credence to the July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration declaring, among other things, that China violated its obligations under UNCLOS with its island-building activities on several features, including Kagitingan Reef. Also, that China’s nine-dash lines had no legal basis for maritime claims.

But what good would Carpio’s proposition really do when China has established her dominion in the WPS with impunity, does not give a hoot about UNCLOS and simply brushes off the decision of the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal?

Needless to say that China is staying in the WPS forever and nobody, not even the US nor the UN, can stop their continuing military build-up in the disputed waters. The strategic importance of the place, both for military and economic purposes, cannot be overemphasized and China can only gloat for the success it has attained in having the vast area under its control today.

Had the Duterte government protested when China started building the now existing maritime observation center, a meteorological observatory, and a national environmental and air quality monitoring station, all on the pretext that it was built for humanitarian reasons?

How about when China quietly installed defensive missile systems and military jamming equipment, which disrupts communications and radar systems?

It never did.

The fact is that protesting against a superpower like China whose formidable military presence can be felt in our backyard is not only dispiriting, but is in itself an exercise in futility. We are on our own and the best way forward is not to antagonize but rather focus on economic cooperation while maintaining our self-respect.