Part Two: Sequel to Chinese at Whitsun (Julian Felipe) Reef: Occupation, Invasion or Exaggeration?
It seems that the posture in the Whitsun Reef or otherwise known in the Philippines as the Julian Felipe Reef where the more or less 200 Chinese fishing vessels that were spotted taking shelter due to bad weather and sea conditions is changing. The weather is better and Chinese fishing vessels are now separated from each other and back to fishing.
According to a reliable friend of mine, all are Chinese fishing boats since it’s fishing season. The boats are big because they are modern types. They fish during the night using lights to attract fishes and take a rest during the daytime.
Just to note, the Whitsun Reef is situated in the Union Banks (Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs), which is a large drowned atoll in the center of Dangerous Ground in the Spratly Islands or also known as the Kalayaan Group of Islands (KIG) in the Philippines in the contested waters of the SCS. Union Banks is located 230 kilometers (120 nautical miles) west of the Philippine coast, containing islands and reefs whose ownership remains disputed and controversial to date.
This disputed maritime territory in the SCS is being claimed by several coastal claimant-states like Vietnam, China, and the Philippines. All these countries profess that they have sufficient legal basis and historical evidence to assert their sovereignty and jurisdiction over this area of the SCS. China and Vietnam based their claims on historical grounds and international customary laws, while the Philippines based its claims on the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Thus, this only goes to show that this area indeed remains a contested one.
Moreover, according to Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana in a media interview, he expects the situation at the Julian Felipe Reef or Whitsun Reef to improve soon but declined to give a time frame when the Chinese fishing vessels would leave the area.
He said that “I don’t want to give a time frame because this is the subject of diplomatic exchange, it’s confidential, but I expect it, in the coming month we’ll see an improvement on the situation.” He also stated that the Chinese side assured the Philippines that this will not be a “permanent situation” and that the ships were only “seeking shelter from bad weather”.
Sta. Romana however also contended that the country must remain vigilant and closely monitor movements on the ground. “I look at this as a situation that we should be concerned with but we don’t have to panic about and we should just exercise a high degree of vigilance, a high degree of monitoring, and see what happens on the ground.” Also, Sta. Romana believes the present issue could also be resolved with “an abundance of diplomacy”.
Thus far, it is a fact that Chinese authorities and officials from the Philippine government have been in talks following the incident in the said reef. Hence, this is diplomacy at work on the part of both parties.
China’s Fishing Moratorium
Likewise, another point of consideration as well that probably needs to be factored in to have a broader picture and context of the situation is the fact that China has a fishing moratorium from 1 May to August 15. China has enforced an annual fishing ban to protect the ocean’s ecosystem and biodiversity from excessive fishing since 1995.
The fishing ban in the SCS covers the areas being claimed by China as part of their territory began in 1999. Accordingly, January to April is the best fishing season since sea conditions are better compared with August to December when many typhoons hit the SCS.
The said fishing moratorium covers areas north of the 12th parallel, including Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) but excluding most of the Nansha (Spratly) Islands.
To note, Scarborough Shoal, a feature in the SCS is effectively controlled by China. Now, if one will ask how the Chinese acquired control of the Scarborough Shoal, I guess one has to ask the previous administration on this because the “Scarborough Standoff” happened during the watch of President Noynoy Aquino.
You can also read the piece written by Gen. Antonio Parlade entitled, “How We Almost Lost West Philippine Seas, How the Liberal Party Wasted our Ascendancy over It (sovereignph.com),” which has lots of insights and inside stories on this matter.
To put things in perspective, the recent incident in the disputed waters of the SCS involving the Philippines and China is not something new nor it’s a prelude to an invasion or occupation for that matter. These kinds of skirmishes happen precisely because the area has been a disputed one for a long time. That’s the glaring reality.
For instance, a similar incident happened in 2019 when more than a hundred Chinese vessels also amassed near the Philippine-occupied Pagasa Island. But eventually, these Chinese vessels left the area after several diplomatic exchanges and a meeting between President Rodrigo Duterte and President Xi Jinping.
Thus, the most important consideration in situations such as this recent incident in the SCS between claimant-states like the Philippines and China is the fact that no serious military confrontations tantamount to war had happened, and I guess that the most important thing to take note of and to avoid by all parties concerned. Hence, “making a mountain out of a molehill” and inflating the recent incident in the SCS out of proportion is not at all helpful and a wise thing to do. It will just cause unnecessary irritation and turmoil between the two countries involved in this matter.
The too much politicization and speculations on the issue by some political personalities belonging to the political opposition alleging that the recent incident in the SCS is akin to a seizing of Philippine territory on the part of China devoid of concrete and substantial proofs and pieces of evidence to substantiate their claims are embroidered half-truths beyond the realm of objectivity.
This is thus far not only a far-fetched and exaggerated way of depicting the incident but created some level of commotions and apprehensions in the country on top of the already widespread anxieties because of the surge in Covid-19 cases.
This is their attempt to discredit Duterte’s friendly and closer relations with China as part of his independent foreign policy.
The underlying political scheme is to appeal to emotions, tap-on and stir the anti-China sentiments of some Filipinos banking on the expectations that this might facilitate some kind of craze for Filipinos to rally behind them at the expense of the country’s national survival and security as if by capitalizing on this issue, they can win supporters to add to their support base which is dwindling by the day.
These kinds of “dirty tricks” can be likened to “political gaslighting”, where they use half-truths, speculations, and baseless allegations basically to manipulate the information to frame a narrative to influence and control people’s perception to elicit defensive responses from the people or confuse the people, making them anxious to the point of eliciting distrusts against the current administration then use these defensive reactions to legitimize and justify their claims without any proofs whatsoever.
These are dirty tricks that have been used for some time now just to undermine the current administration. This is more intensified and latent now than before because the 2022 national/presidential election is just around the corner.
On another note, as a country, we should look at the bigger geopolitical picture and considerations surrounding the contested waters of the SCS vis-à-vis the interests of western powers and pivot to Asia policy of the United States (US) to contain and prevent the rise of China.
One must take cognizance of the fact that China is a rising power not only in Asia but a rising global power even. This reality is what the US and its western allies have been trying to prevent for some time now by striding up and hastening its confrontation with China on all fronts.
Likewise, the US and its western allies seem to be on the look-out for any window of opportunity or situation to see the Philippines and China hard-hitting each other instead of being friends who can resolve matters and differences through diplomacy, bilateral talks, and friendly negotiations.
This has been exemplified by the “rabble-rousing” statements of the US and its allies like Japan, Australia, and Canada on the said incident in the SCS telling us that they have our back covered and each stating that the presence of Chinese fishing vessels at Whitsun Reef is destabilizing regional and global security. For instance, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted: “We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, which undermines peace and security. The U.S. stands with our ally, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of People’s Republic of China maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef.”
Hence, in the middle of the escalating differences and tensions between China and the US together with its allies, as a country, we should be more discerning and be more mindful of the undercurrents and undertows behind the statements and declarations of these western powers.
As a country, we need to be more cautious in how we approach any situations and incidents in the SCS for that matter. As much as possible, the Philippines must avoid being in the middle of the rivalries of the two superpowers (China and the US) because if not, and if we are not careful, we will be the casualty at the end of the day. And this is not to our advantage. This is not our national interest and the country will be situated in a very disadvantaged position.
Therefore, the recent incident in the SCS should be handled by concerned parties in a diplomatic, rational, objective, and level-headed manner to avoid unnecessary irritation that might cause us confrontations, which we are not equipped and prepared for given the many more pressing issues the country is faced with like responding to the coronavirus pandemic given the surge in Covid-19 cases that need both the utmost attention and resources of our government and the cooperation of every Filipino.
Thus, to paint a picture or an imagination in the minds of the Filipinos alluding that China will invade or occupy the Philippines and its territory as propelled by the “gaslighting” of some political personalities belonging to the political opposition is not only misleading, deceptive but for the most part not helpful at all.
Regarding the situation in the SCS involving China and the Philippines at the moment, yes, I guess we need to be concerned, but we need to approach the situation with objectivity, open-mindedness with lots of rational thinking, and diplomacy. We should be vigilant and monitor the situation on the ground while remaining calm and open-minded. We should act with caution and be broad-minded enough to see the situation considering the bigger geopolitical issues surrounding the disputed waters of the SCS.
In resolving our differences with China as our good friend and close neighbor, we should always be objective, level-headed and rational. We should resolve our differences and conflicting issues with China in a peaceful, diplomatic and friendly manner.
Diplomacy and the independent foreign policy of the Duterte administration are effective tools/policies we can maximize and utilize to the fullest as we pursue our bilateral relations with China, the US, and the rest of the world. These are our potent artilleries as we engage China, the US, and the world at large.