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Putting sanity into our South China Sea policy

One president said we will defend Recto Bank like Recto Avenue. His successor admits we can do nothing to stop China doing as it wishes in the South China Sea.

Who’s telling the truth here? Let’s take this step by step.

First, what’s the State’s paramount task?

The Constitution, Article II, Section 4, states: “The prime duty of the Government is to serve and protect the people.”

Everything the State does, including asserting sovereign rights at sea, must comply with that supreme duty.

Now, let’s consider the different approaches of then-President Benigno S. Aquino III and incumbent Rodrigo R. Duterte.

Five years ago this month, Aquino confronted China at Scarborough or Panatag Shoal, sending the country’s largest warship against a flotilla of Chinese marine surveillance vessels. With no help from Uncle Sam, we lost.

Aquino then mounted an international campaign against “Chinese bullying”, even likening it to Nazi aggression. At The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), he contested Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim over nearly all the South China Sea. The Chinese refused to participate, and the PCA ruled in our favor.

Perhaps most significant, through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), signed during then-President Barack Obama’s visit three years ago this month, Aquino allowed US forces to escalate rotations and use of military bases in the country. Washington wanted to move 60 percent of its naval assets to East Asia, from Hawaii and bases farther away.

The confrontation approach

Where did Aquino’s strategy get us?

First, China became more hostile, barring Filipino fishermen from Panatag and curbing trade, aid and investment. Chinese vessels also briefly barred boats resupplying our marines on a derelict ship at Ayungin Shoal, just weeks before Obama’s 2014 visit.

Washington’s expected buildup under the Edca threatened China and its shipping, including four-fifths of its oil imports passing the South China Sea. So, Beijing erected military-capable facilities on reclaimed land at Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef. The latter was seized from Philippine control in 1995, also absent US intervention.

And China ignored the PCA decision invalidating the nine-dash line, as other big powers did with international rulings, including the 1986 International Court of Justice decision against the US Navy’s mining of Nicaragua’s main harbor.

As for the Edca, if it were implemented, American forces would move into bases beside Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, and Puerto Princesa, and in Pampanga and Nueva Ecija provinces in our leading rice-growing region.

Such regional air bases would be prime targets, along with aircraft carriers, in a war between America and China, which can erupt over North Korea, Japan or Taiwan.

So said the US Army-sponsored RAND think tank report, “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable,” published last year. It also warned that American and Chinese forces are so devastating, both have an incentive to strike first without warning.

The friendly approach

Now, the Duterte way. He squabbled with America and announced an “alliance” with China and Russia during his October visit to Beijing.

Filipino fishermen are back at Panatag, prompting even Western analysts to concede that Duterte got China to obey the PCA. Beijing offered $24 billion in aid, and we might buy Chinese and Russian arms. Japan too offered defense and economic assistance, wary of the Philippines falling under Chinese influence.

President Duterte is quick to avoid tensions with China. He stopped naval patrols with the US, and bristled when Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana announced in January that the Americans would erect base facilities over the next three years.

When Lorenzana raised concerns over Chinese vessels in Benham Rise in the Pacific, where the Philippines has exclusive economic rights over the seabed, the President said he gave Beijing permission for marine research.

Not even a Supreme Court justice’s urgings to defend sovereign rights and subtle warnings of impeachment stopped Duterte’s conciliatory approach. Neither did an actual ouster petition, charging betrayal of public trust for allegedly allowing Chinese violations.

There are fears that friendly relations spur China to erode our sovereign rights. The foreign affairs and justice departments recently spoke of filing strong protests over a reported plan to erect a Scarborough monitoring station, which Beijing promptly denied.

Meanwhile, amid warm Beijing-Manila ties, there are hopes of signing a binding Asean-China Code of Conduct in disputed areas, at regional meetings in the Philippines this year.

Over the long term, as massive infrastructure and investment, heavily funded by China and Japan, boost national wealth, the Philippines may finally acquire anti-access/area denial weapons—marine surveillance planes, anti-ship missiles, and air defense systems—urged by Washington defense analysts to deter encroachments.

Indeed, former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez says, we can already buy 200 Indo-Russian BrahMos missiles to protect offshore oil deposits—a P35-billion energy-related expense, which the P150-billion-plus Malampaya gas royalties can fund.

So, which is the safer, saner way to secure our sovereign rights?

 

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