By Rigoberto Tiglao
THE following article, written by a political scientist specializing in Asean and Chinese studies, Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy, was posted on the website Asean Post on February 17, with the title “Philippine-China Relations Under Siege.”
I took the liberty of deleting a few sentences so it would fit in this column’s space, and rearranged the topics she discussed to put first her discussion on the new Chinese law on its coast guard’s authority on the use of force. (FYI, the coast guard’s official name is “Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Coast Guard Corps.”) I didn’t add a single word to her article.
Former Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio recently wrote two frothing-at-the-mouth columns over this law, one of which claimed it has made the superpower “A grave threat to world peace.”
The other was a brazenly sinophobic column titled “China unleashes another deadly virus,” which indicates he is a true believer of Trump and his ignorant, racist followers’ view that Covid-19 was a Chinese conspiracy against America, and that its new coast guard law “this time is a legal virus.”
Not even mercenary communist propagandists have gone that low in throwing dirt at China.
This demonstrates that Carpio’s writings on our disputes with China are obviously no longer springing from rationality, but, as the Filipino phrase would put it “Iba na.” I intend to find out why the vitriol, put up or not.
The Coast Guard issue is very well addressed in this piece by Malindog-Uy. I dare Carpio to answer her claims. This young researcher shames him.
Several issues involving China and the Philippines are being exploited and hyped up by some media outlets and political personalities, seeking to discredit Philippine-China relations to push their agenda and political interests to the fore.
These irresponsible parties are not concerned by how this will impact the bilateral relations between China and the Philippines which the Duterte administration has been cultivating for the mutual benefit of both countries. On this note, it is imperative to shed light on all these issues and somehow add clarity and perspective to each of them.
China’s newly enacted coast guard law that took effect on February 1, 2021, which explicitly authorizes pre-emptive strikes against foreign vessels in waters “under China’s jurisdiction,” has caused alarm in the Philippines and other neighbouring countries.
While concerns and uneasiness about the newly approved China Coast Guard Law (CCGL) are valid, to label it as ‘a verbal threat of war to any country that defies it’ or a ‘virtual declaration of war’ on the part of China by certain political personalities and groups in the Philippines is far-fetched and speculative without tangible basis whatsoever.
The Chinese embassy in Manila explained that the ‘China Coast Guard is an administrative law enforcement agency. The formulation of the Coast Guard Law is a normal domestic legislative activity of China. The content of the law conforms to international conventions and the practices of the international community.’
The Chinese embassy in Manila further contended that the China Coast Guard Law (CCGL) doesn’t specifically target any country. The enactment of the law doesn’t indicate any change in China’s maritime policy. China has always been committed to managing differences with countries, including the Philippines, through dialogue and consultations and upholding peace and stability in the South China Sea.
The Chinese embassy in Manila further reiterated that enacting such a coast guard law is not unique to China, but is a sovereign right of every country.
Likewise, Tian Shichen, vice president of Grandview Institution, a think tank group also expressed that every country has the right to carry out law enforcement in waters and air space under its jurisdiction, including the use of force, as long as the exercise of this power is within the scope of the authorization of law, and does not violate the international obligations assumed by the country.”
Furthermore, according to Shuxian Luo, a PhD Candidate in international relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, authorizing maritime law enforcement personnel to use force on foreign vessels is a common practice adopted by coast guards in the region, and China’s coast guard law does not represent a deviation or outlier in this regard.
For example, Japan revised its Coast Guard Law in 2001, authorizing its coast guard personnel to use weapons against foreign vessels within Japanese waters in situations deemed as reasonable and necessary. South Korea authorized its coast guard officers in 2016 to use firearms, including handguns and onboard cannons, against Chinese fishing vessels operating illegally in Korean waters should the situation be deemed threatening.
Likewise, Vietnam’s coast guard law passed in 2018 grants its maritime law enforcement personnel greater latitude to open fire at sea.
Even the Philippines for that matter had enacted similar legislation — the Philippine Coast Guard Law of 2009 that established the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) as an armed and uniformed service but thus far has not been seen as a “threat of war.”
In a much broader context, if one will examine more the context behind the enactment of the China Coast Guard Law, one will somehow understand that it is China’s way of clarifying and standardizing the operations of its coast guard, which more or less had suffered institutional fragmentation and a lack of solid legal foundation.
The primordial intention of the law is to set guidelines for Chinese coast guard personnel on “how to escalate the level of force employed.” In this regard, the said law should be treated as a welcome and positive development as it offers more rationalized and organized guidelines on how Chinese coast guard personnel can operate and carry out their functions.”
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on Jan. 26, 2021 that a certain Larry Hugo reported through social media that he was harassed as he was headed to a fishing group near Pag-Asa on Jan. 25, 2021. Hugo narrated that a Chinese ship blocked his way, forcing him to turn around for fear of being attacked with a water cannon which could cause his boat to sink.
Nevertheless, such baseless reports were disputed by Navy Rear Admiral Ramil Enriquez, commander of the Western Command who made some clarifications vis-à-vis Hugo’s claims and contended that such an incident never happened.
Enriquez in a media interview said that ‘when we enlarged a photo from the video which he posted on his Facebook account, we noticed that there was no movement of the water which we normally see when a ship is moving. This means that the Chinese ship was not moving during that time.’
Enriquez further contended that the [Philippine] Navy immediately conducted an investigation and based on the findings of the investigation, there have been no reports whatsoever of harassment on Filipino fishermen by Chinese vessels for more than a year now.”
On the other hand, the accusations that a dredger spotted for illegal and unauthorized presence about 13 kilometers southeast off Orion Point in Bataan province was a Chinese vessel was again another blunder on the part of those who propagated such fake news.
The Chinese embassy in Manila clarified the matter by saying that the dredger, MV Zhonhai 68 is neither a Chinese vessel nor registered in China.
It contended that based on ‘initial investigations’ on the identity of MV Zhonhai 68 by relevant Chinese authorities, the ship is not registered in China and is not a Chinese ship. Accordingly, there was no Chinese national on the dredging ship when it was found. The Chinese embassy in Manila cited the information provided by the International Maritime Organization, which confirms that the dredger with an IMO number of 8692665, is under the flag of Sierra Leone.
Furthermore, the sensationalized reports and speculations on the entry of a Chinese scientific survey ship into Philippine waters as an “intrusion,” operating without consent and had no clearance from the Philippine government was another fake news.
According to the Chinese embassy in Manila, the fact of the matter is that the Chinese scientific survey ship was seeking humanitarian shelter in Philippine waters due to unfavorable weather and sea conditions in the Pacific where they are scheduled to conduct a research mission. The ship had sought clearance and humanitarian assistance from the Philippine government and maintained communications with relevant authorities all the time.
Saving lives at sea
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (Solas), and international customary law, every coastal state is obliged to provide necessary humanitarian assistance to save lives at sea. It is a fact that China and the Philippines have been assisting each other on many similar humanitarian occasions.
Hence, the misplaced apprehensions of some segments of Philippine society, more particularly those belonging to the political opposition, are without a doubt a product of double standards and prejudice against China, when other countries like Japan, Vietnam, and even the Philippines, have similar laws.
In retrospect, the recent issues surrounding China and the Philippines were indeed blown out of proportion by some political forces and media outlets in the country. Fortunately, a pragmatic and street-smart leader like Duterte who knows his geopolitics well enough did not entertain the tirades of the political opposition against China over these issues, thereby diffusing unnecessary tensions with China.
Moreover, the Philippines as it pursues its bilateral relations with China must maintain a pragmatic approach based on geopolitical realities, mutual respect and cooperation, rather than speculation, fake news and baseless accusations coming from the political opposition.
As a country, it would be wise for the Philippines to choose its battles wisely. Meaning, it should gear its attention more on establishing closer economic and diplomatic ties with China, while protecting and upholding its national interest, which is a win-win situation for both.
It should also continuously pursue its ‘independent foreign policy’ of being friends to all and enemies to none. Antagonism and unnecessary conflict with China would not in any way benefit the Philippines.
*Accompanying the article in the Asean Post was this biographical note: “Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a professor of political science, international relations, development studies, European studies, SEA and China studies. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs as a consultant. She is president of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines.”
Rigoberto Tiglao was former Philippine ambassador to Greece and Cyprus, a former Press Secretary and Malacanang spokesman and is a regular columnist at the Manila Times.