SINCE the pandemic forced my children to attend classes online, I got a chance to listen to their lectures. Part of the curriculum for Grade-5 children in Social Studies (Araling Panlipunan) are the basic concepts of “territory,” “sovereignty,” “exclusive economic zone [EEZ]” and “UNCLOS” or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Wow! I thought that was good. My children are learning about maritime zones. And so I listened intently at how the teachers explained such matters.
In Filipino, the teacher declared that the EEZ is part of the territory of the Philippines. Then went on to ask: “What is your favorite seafood? Are you aware that you might not be able to enjoy it once [another country] claims the islands where the fish you like is sourced?”
Technically, the questions are fallacious. But for the sake of simplification, yes, they can be considered correct in principle. I couldn’t fault the teachers for simplifying those concepts to Grade-5 students. They are actually what’s being reported in the media.
While writing about China’s occupation of the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1995, I also grappled with the concepts and had to review the history of the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea (SCS/WPS) dispute. There was no Internet back then, so that means I had to read them from books and archived newspapers from the libraries.
I was fortunate that I got a chance to sit-in during lectures of former University of the Philippines (UP) dean Merlin Magallona and Prof. Rafael Lotilla (now energy secretary) at the Department of Foreign Affairs’s Foreign Service Institute. Maritime-law experts from the DFA like ambassadors Gilberto Asuque and Henry Bensurto were also very accommodating of my questions every now and then.
After learning a thing or two from those discussions, I sent my editors an infographic of how incoherent our laws on Philippine territorial limits were. A UP professor called my attention, saying I was divulging state secrets!
So that’s how we in the “fourth estate” were trying to balance our reporting. We need to simplify very complex issues but at the same time, we need to balance if we are already giving too much information—to the detriment of our national security.
After more than 20 years we in the Philippine media still report the same problem. Our borders are porous, and we still lack fighter jets and submarines to protect our shores, Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy, Coast Guard or militias “harass” our maritime-law enforcers and fishermen.
Many diplomats believed that the territorial dispute would last for a very long time. The more practical solution at the moment is to manage the dispute by having boring negotiations to effect a Code of Conduct.
“Sir, I was still a virgin when that ‘code’ was discussed initially,” I kidded Secretary of Foreign Affairs (SFA) Enrique Manalo during an informal forum with members of the diplomatic press corps last Thursday. “I’m nearing menopause, and there’s still nothing to speak about.”
A career diplomat, Manalo took the joke well and as a cunning negotiator, he was quick to correct me: “There was a negotiation then for a Declaration for a Code of Conduct,” he said, referring to the agreement signed between Asean and China in 2002.
“Yes,” I said. “That was just an intention to have a Code of Conduct.”
He assured: “We will do our very best to have [one…] at least during your lifetime.”
That drew a hearty laugh from the diplomatic press circle. (Note: It was an off-the-record meeting, but I got the SFA’s clearance to write about this portion only.)
I knew that simply having a “declaration” to be bound by rules in the SCS/WPS was already a difficult feat. China wanted the entire Asean on board, and the bloc naturally has the propensity of taking its sweet time in the name of “consensus-building.” But they did it with one important note: status quo. No more taking over new islands and rocks.
A new generation of media is now writing about the same set of issues with our maritime security. Negotiations are boring. So when reports of harassment or boat sinking happen, they still land in the front pages of newspapers or top stories in broadcast-news programs.
That is the reason negotiations are hard work. Some say the fact that China and Asean are still talking is by itself an accomplishment. But 10 years is already too long, especially in the age of the Internet, Viber, WhatsApp and Telegram.
Nobody owns the sea. The body of water is a world resource. Its security and health are important to the world. We need to convince China that it is also in their best interest that Filipino children are growing who are not hating it.
Forget about oil and gas for the meantime—a new generation is taking over, digital savvy and more attuned to the effect of the global community who can offer hopefully better, long-lasting solutions to our maritime problems.