Manila or Beijing: Who’s really in control of Sandy Cay?

In Photo: Protesters display placards and shout slogans in a continuing protest against China over its coast guard’s alleged seizure of fish caught by Filipino fishermen near the Scarborough Shoal on June 14, 2018, by the baywalk in Manila. The protesters denounced China’s recent alleged harassment and assailed President Duterte for his “sheer neglect to assert our legal and historic claim” in the South China Sea.

THE permanent presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships in the Sandy Cay gives a foretaste of what may possibly come for Filipinos—that the country may yet “physically” lose another territory in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) to Beijing.

The basing of Chinese vessels in the Cay followed the course of Scarborough Shoal, where China already exercises a “de facto” control following a standoff between a patrol vessel of the China Marine Surveillance and the Philippine Navy’s flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar in 2012.

Protesters display placards and shout slogans in continuing protest against China over its coast guard’s alleged seizure of fish caught by Filipino fishermen near the Scarborough Shoal on June 14, 2018, by the baywalk in Manila.

Unless the Navy can drive away the Chinese ships or would challenge them—and this time, without the Philippine government blinking—Beijing could very soon add Sandy Cay, located just 2.5 miles off Pag-asa Island, to its annexed territory in the WPS. That is the worst fear of some experts who have studied the maritime disputes extensively, among them Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.

‘Soft stance’

Like Scarborough Shoal, Sandy Cay has been controlled by Beijing, even as early as last year, according to party-list Rep. Gary Alejano of Magdalo. It’s a warning that he has repeatedly sounded several months back, but was dismissed by security officials.

Moreover, Alejano claimed that President Duterte has ordered the military to stop patrolling the WPS, but the Armed Forces of the Philippines has strongly denied this, insisting such security patrols are part of the AFP’s mandate.

The Magdalo representative, however, said patrols could be conducted on a scaled-down frequency as a middle ground.

Alejano claimed Duterte’s alleged order and his “weak” positioning on the territorial tiff with China is causing demoralization in the military.

However, Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana quickly denied this, stressing that there was no demoralization within the ranks, and that the Commander-in-Chief did not order the military to cease its patrols. He admitted, though, that Duterte can order the halt if he wanted to, but it is something that, according to Lorenzana, Duterte will never do.

“He [Duterte] can, but he will not do it,” he said.

Challenges, harassments

Lorenzana and other defense and military officials have remained mum on China’s “control” of Sandy Cay, although the defense chief admitted that China, from time to time, challenges Philippine patrols in the WPS.

The defense chief also called the recent harassment by China of a government resupply mission to the Ayungin Shoal as “isolated,” an incident that Duterte claimed he was not aware of.

Alejano insisted the country has already lost its effective control over Sandy Cay due to the dedicated presence of Chinese ships within or near the area, but this was disputed by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano.

Cayetano maintained the Philippines has never lost any single territory in the WPS.

While the country owns or lays legal claim to Sandy Cay and the Scarborough Shoal, the government has lost physical control over them due to the presence of Chinese ships.

In Scarborough, fishing activities by Filipinos are even regulated by China.

Blame-passing

Echoing the position of Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Carpio, former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that if China exercises control over Sandy Cay, then it could also claim jurisdiction over Subi Reef.

Lorenzana blamed the previous administration for the situation in the WPS, saying it mismanaged the issue.

Contingency plan

Given that Beijing has exercised control over Sandy Cay and Scarborough Shoal, former Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales has urged the government to draw a contingency plan as he foresees China will not stop occupying features in the WPS, and may even wage war just to protect them.

However, Lorenzana said this will never happen, because even while China is a superpower, it does not have the habit of invading or occupying other countries.

“Although China is a superpower, it is not their practice to invade other countries, even when they were [in their] heyday during ancient times,” he said.

“They are trying their best to become also a good, respectable superpower, so I don’t think they will invade the Philippines,” he added.

China lays claim to nearly almost all features in the South China Sea, even extending deep into the maritime waters and claims of its neighbors, which include Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Taiwan.

In the Philippines, and through its nine-dash-line map that covers 85.7 percent of the total maritime waters of the South China Sea, China has set its delineation that cut through Malampaya, and moved its boundary within less than a kilometer away from Batanes, Ilocos Norte and even Palawan, taking away at least 70 percent of the country’s territorial waters.

Diplomacy

Lorenzana said that, instead of crafting a war plan, the government should go for soft power or diplomacy with China, which Duterte is already doing.

“We will use diplomacy…talk to the Chinese,” he said.

Still, critics have pointed to the obvious: the occupation of Scarborough Shoal and the harassment of Filipino fishermen in the area and even the resupply mission for troops guarding the Ayungin Shoal, as well as the basing of Chinese ships in Sandy Cay, all happened while the Chinese-friendly Duterte is talking to Beijing.

Image Credits: AP/Bullit Marquez

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Rene P. Acosta covers defense, law enforcement and national security for the paper. He had written for a number of publications, including abroad before he joined BusinessMirror. His works had appeared in the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Asia Pacific Defense Forum, both in the US. He took up regional security with the International Visitor Leadership Program, US. He is currently the chairman of the board of the Defense Press Corps of the Philippines which he had headed in 2009.

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