Panatag Shoal: from fishing ground to solid military ground

 

We all have heard of Panatag Shoal or most commonly known as Scarborough Shoal at the height of the South China Sea (SCS) territorial dispute when China unequivocally closed off the shoal from Filipino fishermen in 2012.

The shoal off the coast of Zambales lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and as such fishermen from this coastal region consider the shoal their fishing ground since time immemorial.

The shoal became even determinedly for the Filipinos when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled the granting of 200 nautical miles (approximately 370 km) EEZ for island nations, which in reality exceeds the distance compared to where Panatag Shoal is which is only 119 nautical miles (approximately 220 km) west of Zambales.

With the ascendancy , however, of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency, and especially after he made a state visit to China’s President Xi Jinping in October 2016, the strained relationship between the two countries got better and the Filipino fishermen were allowed access to the rich fishing ground again.

We were hoping that this kind of access to the fishing ground was granted for good and for humanitarian reason especially that Duterte did not and has not in any way agreed or concurred with the international arbitral tribunal ruling favoring the Philippines in its maritime case against China.

Suffice to say that Duterte, like the leadership of China, ignored the arbitral ruling and, in fact, supported China’s continued island building and militarization of the area even as it was being built at our own backyard already.

Seemingly doing China a favor Duterte made it known that he wanted China’s patronage in return to jump-start the development of the country, thus, the pouring in of cash from China today.

But what is disheartening now, if not alarming, is that China has decided to convert Panatag Shoal, yes, the rich fishing ground belonging to the Philippines, into a solid military ground, just like the others, where it plans to build environmental monitoring stations, whatever that means.

If this is not a classic case of ‘giving them a hand and they will take an arm’ or ‘giving them an inch and they will take a mile’, I don’t know what is.

But what is worse is that the military build-up, for how else would one describe it, can be found at our turf!

I had been supportive of Duterte and even in his stand that if the most powerful country in the world was not able to stop China from militarizing the SCS, who are we to halt them?

I hope Duterte this time realizes that our generosity, if not our naivete, is being taken advantaged to the hilt by his more calculating, wily and farsighted Chinese counterpart.

What is disturbing and frightening is that when push comes to shove between two powerful contending nations having a stake in this part of the globe, the Philippines is right there included in the cross-hair of China’s enemy.

There is definitely no if and buts about it.

Benham Rise issue – Part III

 

I have no choice but to designate this article as Part III since I have already written about Benham Rise twice some years back which you can read at this links:

https://quierosaber.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/philippines-pin-hopes-on-benham-rise/

https://quierosaber.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/thank-god-for-benham-rise-part-ii/

Never had I anticipated writing about it again until I heard the recent alarming and disturbing news that a Chinese survey ship was spotted at the Benham Rise location.

“We are concerned about the presence of a Chinese ship in Benham Rise, which has been recognized by the United Nations as part of the Philippines,” said Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella in a statement on Friday, March 10.

“The Department of National Defense has already notified the Department of Foreign Affairs regarding this matter as we continue to assert our sovereignty over our territory,” he added.

Of course we should, forcefully and explicitly!

The Benham Rise area definitely does not have any stupid Chinese historical claim of any sort like they had been asserting they have at the West Philippine Sea just because it is part of the larger body of water bearing the name South China Sea (SCS).

On the pretext that China was “looking for a place to put submarine”, as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said was the info he got, the most likely reason would be that they have chosen the area for their oceanographic research because they just want to confirm if indeed the unimaginable wealth and extent in mineral resources and gas deposits found underneath Benham Rise truly exist.

I cannot blame President Rodrigo Duterte for pussyfooting with the Chinese in the West Philippine Sea issue, where even the country’s territorial integrity has been breached with China’s nine- dash line claim.

If the most powerful country and the acclaimed top ‘policeman’ in the world- the US, and the UN, through its agency the UNCLOS, were not able to stop China from expanding and militarizing the SCS, who are we to prevent China’s hegemony of the contested areas?

But what I am just saying here is that we had been hearing Duterte declaring time and again that he will die defending the country and the Filipino people from the enemies that will try to destroy them.

Well this is it!

There has not been and there will never be a greater challenge such as this one in Duterte’s presidency that needs more of his grit, determination and resolve to stand up for his country and people.

Duterte could not afford anymore to be complacent the way he has been pleased and gratified at the financial and technical help China has promised to give for many infrastructure projects for the country.

China may have bamboozled us in the SCS and there was nothing that we can do. In that part of the globe what is China’s is China’s and what is ours is still China’s

Duterte and those that will follow him should be reminded that at Benham Rise what legally belongs to the Philippines is for the Filipinos and for the generations of Filipinos to come and not to China or any other exploitative country that intends to not only hold us by the balls, but stick it to us as well.

 

No euphoria in the favorable decision of China-Philippines arbitration

 

south china sea“The award is a complete and total victory for the Philippines … a victory for international law and international relations,” said Paul Reichler, lead lawyer for the Philippines.

The lawyer is of course talking about the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA)  in The Hague favoring the Philippines in the case it filed against China ruling that the latter has no historic title over the South China Sea, even as it claims rights to the resources within the sea areas falling within the nine-dash line, and that it has in fact breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by disallowing its people to fish and the government to conduct oil and gas exploration.

But is it really and truly a victory for the Philippines or is it just a landmark decision for the world to know and appreciate the legality of it?

How could Filipinos be euphoric of the victory when China has been defiant all along calling the case a farce, thus, boycotting the hearings at the PCA, and now rejecting the ruling, saying, that its people had more than 2,000 years of history in the South China Sea so that sovereignty and maritime interests belong to them and must be militarily defended accordingly?

How could Filipinos be euphoric of the PCA’s favorable decision when nothing will change and the ominous presence of the artificial islands furiously built in record time with military facility flying the China flag will continue to prevail?

Let us not talk anymore about the huge damage inflicted on the ecosystem under the sea when China turned the reefs into islands, for if the international community led by the U.S. has not been able to prevent them from claiming 90 % of the South China Sea with their nine-dash line policy, who are we to drive them out, much less defy?

Surely the decision did not sit well with China as the arbitral court has made them appear as a bully not only to the Philippines but to the other claimant-nation in the region as well, and so what are we to expect next from this piqued giant nation?

Or to put it in another context, what are we to do with China?

Our options, I would like to think, is simply to face realities.

The reality that the U.S. has no other interest in the area but to make sure that the freedom of navigation will continue to be respected by China.

The reality that China has established itself already in the area for better or worse and nothing can be done about it now but to be respected by all nations.

The reality that it is advantageous for the country to continue talking with the devil we know, the Americans, who has been our friend and ally for a long, long time.

The reality that it also imperative that we have to talk with the devil we least know, the Chinese, who we find now too close for comfort at our backyard, for whatever concessions we can get to help the lives of our fisher folks in areas concerned and the safety of our OFWs in China, in particular, and for the country, in general, in terms of having its exclusive economic zone guaranteed and respected as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) for the country’s exploitation of marine resources.

The reality that the country is weak, helpless and hapless against China, but will never be intimidated as to give up our sovereignty for what is legally ours, thus, the Philippines need the assistance, military or otherwise, of other nations willing to help like Japan and Australia.

It is interesting to know, and the world is watching us, how the Duterte administration is going to resolve this contentious issue of territorial dispute with a win-win result.

For all intents and purposes the PAC awarding the Philippines a favorable decision does not call for euphoric feeling.

More than a victory it is a landmark decision for the world’s consumption.

Hopefully such landmark decision will not turn into a flashpoint. (https://quierosaber.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/militarization-the-south-china-sea/).

 

China having the last laugh

9-dashedEverything that the Philippines have done so far relative to the West Philippine Sea (WPS) sovereignty issue with China has been reasonable and legal – at least from our own perspective.

Unlike China, which uses the 9-dash line theory of “historical rights” to claim “indisputable sovereignty” over almost the entire South China Sea (SCS), the Philippines has simply followed and complied all these years with the ruling of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) granting the Philippines, a coastal state, an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles of sea from its coastline. What this means is that the country has sovereign or exclusive rights to use and develop resources in and from the area.

But, sadly, what this also means is that China’s 9-dash line claim is eating up a good portion of the country’s EEZ, 80% according to experts, including our own WPS.

As if trumping the country’s sovereignty is not bad enough, affecting the livelihood of many Filipino fisher folks and limiting our access to resources underneath, China is even making us and other neighboring claimant countries more helpless with their awesome capability of making sophisticated artificial islands complete with runways out of existing atolls and reefs right at one’s own backyard.

Yet, China’s leader has the arrogance to say that with their presence in the area now, they will not bully their weak and poor neighbors. Rather, China will continue to seek resolution of the disputes on the basis of respect of historical facts and through discussions and negotiations, according to their leader.

Who is China fooling? Perhaps to those who are willing to kowtow to China’s hegemonic intentions, they will opt for bilateral talks to benefit them economically and, perhaps, militarily. But for those, like us, who wants them to respect UNCLOS, which is to say a resolution through multilateral approach, we will always be at the mercy of their veiled threats and aggressive behavior.

The Philippines has already made a bold and defiant step against China by bringing the country’s sovereignty case for resolution before the Arbitral Tribunal in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Apparently, the UN-backed arbitral tribunal has unanimously decided that it has the right to hear our case despite China’s utter vehemence of the WPS issue being resolved by arbitration.

The fact that the tribunal has considered the evaluation of the merits of the country’s legal assertion of declaring China’s 9-dash line illegal in the next proceedings, the government officials who presented this maritime sovereignty issue in The Hague hailed the tribunal’s opinion as a victory.

But is it really a victory for us?

For as long as China’s formidable and intimidating presence in the SCS will not disrupt the freedom of navigation and over-flights in the area, China could care less really what the UN-backed tribunal’s initial or final decision would be.

The U.S. can make as many naval patrol operations in the area as they want to, where China is said to have reclaimed approximately 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of land in the Spratly island chain since last year, and is now adding harbors, housing and airstrips, including those found in the WPS, but the fact that China has established impressive structures in the area that may be used for military purposes in the future, no doubt about that, only means that this extension of power and might will be there for good to have control over the rich resources in and underneath the 9-dash line that takes up 85% of the SCS.

It will be at the height of China’s benevolence if it could return to us 80% of the EEZ that has been taken away from us because of the 9-dash line claim. As it is, it will only be wishful thinking on our part.

In the end, everybody will see China having the last laugh because there is just no organization nor a nation in the world today that China fears such that it would give up everything it has started in the SCS for violating maritime laws.

So where does this leave a poor country like the Philippines and the other nations having a stake in the SCS?

I think for better or worse, we just have to start re-understanding the word ‘capitulation’ if we want peace and stability in a place where a fire-breathing dragon is found right at our own backyard.

That is the reality the country is facing with China today in the issue of maritime sovereignty in the WPS.

China cries foul over sovereignty issue in the South China Sea

 

The Arbitral Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration hearing the case filed by the Philippines against China.

The Arbitral Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration hearing the case filed by the Philippines against China.

For bringing the sovereignty issue in the South China Sea (SCS) before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, the Netherlands, China described the Philippines’ action as foul.

Well, to make it more melodramatic, China portrayed itself as the ‘victim’ of the Philippines’ stance in wanting to solve the territorial dispute in the SCS by arbitration and not by bilateral talks or negotiations and consultations between governments, as China wants it and sees it fit.

For this, the Philippines has irked China terribly prompting the giant nation to call the smaller, weak and poor nation the ‘real trouble-maker and rule-breaker in the region.’

Does the Philippines deserve to be called that just because the country is asking the arbitration tribunal to declare China’s nine-dashed line void and for China to respect instead the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles of sea (the West Philippine Sea) from its coastline, which the country is entitled to have by virtue of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)?

Are Filipinos to be called ‘trouble-maker’ in the region just because we are asserting our legal rights over the portion of the SCS, which we call now the West Philippine Sea (WPS), and for that matter purposely grounded a dilapidated WWII-era ship with a handful of Filipino soldiers manning it, aptly describing it as the Philippines’ last line of defense against China’s efforts to control most of the South China Sea?

It must be noted that not only is China contented of claiming 85% of the SCS by virtue of historical grounds, but also wantonly, if not forcefully, still encroaches 80% of the Philippines’ EEZ.

How could one be a ‘victim’ if China has the arrogance and the capability to build artificial islands on disputed reefs, turning it into a military complex – even at your own backyard?

How could one be a ‘victim’ if China has the imperiousness to impose its will and ignore any ruling by the arbitration tribunal concerning the maritime case raised by the Philippines before it?

How could one be a ‘victim’ if China continues to have the swagger, rudeness and barbarity to order the Philippines to remove the grounded, decaying vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the WPS upon learning that it is being repaired to prevent it from falling apart?

The Philippines considers Ayungin Shoal, which lies 105 nautical miles (195 kilometers) southwest of Palawan, as being within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

“China once again urges the Philippines to immediately stop all illegal activities that infringe upon China’s sovereignty and maritime rights, and honor its commitment of towing away the vessel. China reserves the right to take further actions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.

Doesn’t sound to me like a ‘victim’, but more like a consistent big bully, which China is in all manner, shape and form.

Why doesn’t China just ask the Filipino fishermen who are the real victims?

The Torre de Manila and West Philippine Sea controversies

 

Torre de Manila at the background dwarfing the Rizal monument.

Torre de Manila at the background dwarfing the Rizal monument.

I understand that the Torre de Manila (TdM) issue and the West Philippine Sea (WPS) dispute with China are two separate and distinct controversies hounding the nation today.

Separate and distinct in the sense that the TdM has become controversial because of its alleged illegal construction which has been described by many as ‘photobombing’ the grandeur of the Rizal monument at the Luneta Park, while the WPS, where, even the country’s exclusive economic zone (a sea zone 200 nautical miles from its coast) prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which the country claims exclusive rights for fishing, drilling, and other economic activities, is now being claimed by China as part of its nine-dash map claiming practically the whole of the south China Sea.

If the subjects are two separate and distinct issues, then why am I bringing them up together instead of alienating one another?

Well, my intention is simply to point out how similar, yet dismal has been government’s approach in treating that which has now become controversial issues.

Take for instance the TdM issue. Why was the construction company given all the permits by the city of Manila to build it in a place where its monstrosity, at the end, will only destroy the vista or the visual corridors of the Rizal Monument in Luneta?

If the agencies providing the permits did not realize this at the beginning, at least the city government or the national government, for that matter, should have noticed that when the building started rising up, there were already signs that it was going to destroy the aesthetic landscape of the park, yet construction was allowed to go on, adding more floors, before deciding to stop it. And it was not even government that initiated the stoppage of the project.

Now the project is at standstill, while authorities and the stakeholders are locking horns as to how to proceed. Not only are politicians blaming each other, but one even ridiculously suggested to let the TdM stay and for Rizal to make an about-face.

Lack of concern, commitment, determination or political will, if you may, by authorities is simply the culprit. Once acts and decisions are corrupted it could have adverse effects on how our government leaders approach issues that could later turn controversial.

Local government’s delay, nay lackadaisical reaction towards the TdM condominium construction cannot really be alienated from the equally lethargic and passive approach taken by the national government towards China’s civilian-turned-military build-up in the South China Sea (SCS) that started to encroach in the WPS.

What I am simply saying is that our government, whether local or national, has always the propensity and habit of deploring and protesting violations of existing laws only when it is too late already.

China's nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea.

China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea.

In the case of the WPS, despite the seemingly permanent structures built here and there and around the SCS by China all these years, supposedly to assist and give shelter to Chinese fishermen caught in inclement weather, we did not only have the foresight that years later the Chinese will start coming near our shores bullying our own fisher folks and, worst still, making islands out of atolls, but our leaders were more interested in our brand of politics that only made the nation poorer and weaker.

Not until we saw these man-made islands turn into airfields and military complexes that our leaders started making a lot of noise and moving mountains, looking for help. Certainly, we could not do it on our own, not having the capacity and the capability to prevent China from encroaching in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which China is claiming as theirs, too.

Sad to say that as China awaken, with the whole world seeing its succession of leaders turning around the giant nation with an enormous population into both economic and military power to rival the US and seek its own world dominion, the Philippines continued to wallow in poverty with its corrupt leaders and their allies putting their selfish interest ahead of the nation’s and it’s people’s well being.

If the US, the greatest and most powerful nation in the world, has not been able to stop China’s military build-up in the SCS and, most importantly, from imposing China’s nine-dash map that includes our own territorial waters, thus making China the sole claimant of the vast resources in and underneath the SCS, who are we to mount an offensive militarily against them?

What the Philippines has been exercising instead is verbal offensive, for that is all we can do, and for this reason the country is sending a delegation to the UN tribunal at The Hague, headed by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, to argue the country’s position against China’s claim over most of the resource-rich SCS.

But, China has been saying all along that it won’t participate in any arbitration proceedings now or in the future.

Suffice to say that no matter how many arbitration proceedings there will be and how articulate our delegates/advocates are, or whether or not the UN tribunal will rule in our favor, the fact remains that nobody can undo what China has done already at the SCS, including that which is in our own EEZ at the WPS, much less contest and drive them away from what the giant nation claims as their historical domain.

As we find the local government in Manila in quandary searching for solutions as to how to proceed resolving the TdM controversy, so are we looking at the national government alarmingly and desperately trying to keep what belongs to us in the country’s territorial dispute with China at the WPS.

The way I look at it, and I hope I am wrong, is that the steps taken by both governments are all exercise in futility.

Needless to say, we have to live and co-exist with whatever is there, on land and at sea, no matter what the consequences will be.

Balikatan exercise 2015 and China’s military build-up in the South China Sea

balikatan-joint-military-exercise-6This year’s Philippine-US Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) military exercise is considered the largest, being participated by 11,000 soldiers (around 5,000 Filipinos and 6,000 Americans).

The exercise is an annual joint military event which seeks to improve the capability of the two countries’ forces to respond militarily to threats that include terrorists, pirates and smugglers, which could be summed up as maritime security threats, and as well as dealing with natural disasters.

It is also a time to showcase partly America’s newer military hardware with its awesome firepower.

Suffice to say that its primary aim is to maintain security and peace in the Asia Pacific region with the country being a party to the Mutual Defense Treaty Agreement with the US and the armed forces a beneficiary of a modernization program.

But, isn’t is ironic that while the Balikatan exercise is going on today, supposedly to prepare and enhance our bilateral capabilities in confronting and protecting the country’s sovereignty against internal and external threats, China is at the same time aggressively building up its military presence in the South China Sea, encroaching even now in areas which we think and deem our own?

US Ambassador Philip Goldberg expressed that through this bilateral exercise, current challenges being faced by the Asia Pacific region will be solved.

How?

What could be more brazen and menacing challenge to a third world country and the mightiest country in the world than China’s continuing reclamation projects in the South China Sea reaching now within the Philippines’ 200-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is a clear violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)?

Not only is China purposely acting oblivious of the UNCLOS, but China is also flagrantly unmindful of what the US and other Western powers say about its all or nothing claim of the South China Sea.

And yet US Ambassador Philip Goldberg says that this exercise is the kind that will help maintain in Asia the freedom of aviation and navigation as well as the diplomacy in Asia Pacific region.

How could there be freedom of aviation and navigation in the South China Sea when one giant of a nation is dictating the demarcation of claims by sovereign states in the region and controlling the passage of planes and ships later?

It is affecting the livelihood of many Filipino fishermen in the area now.

Tomorrow it will be the people of the world who will be disadvantaged, unless the US and its powerful allies in the Western world will help put order in the South China Sea region.