By Rigoberto Tiglao
US President Joe Biden couldn’t have picked more anti-China officials than US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. The two were at the head of former President Obama’s so-called Pivot to Asia, a thinly disguised program to contain the rise of China as a superpower.
Blinken last January even told media that China posed the “most significant challenge to the US and any other country in Asia.”
Biden himself has said in several speeches that assembling a united front against China would be a top priority for his administration. It was the new administration’s “re-pivot” to Asia.
Trump, however, had that pivot twisting in the wind; after all, he wasn’t really interested in geopolitics. Duterte gained power in 2016 and dropped his predecessor and the Yellows’ servile stance toward the US and undertook a rapprochement with China that has yielded concrete benefits to the country.
Blinken and Sullivan had hardly warmed their seats in late January, and after five years of calm in the South China Sea, a situation has quite suddenly emerged that portrays China as violating Philippine “territory” by having “200 of its maritime militia vessels” intrude into “our’ Julian Felipe Reef. It got the Philippines’ defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, and mainstream media — except this newspaper — nearly deliriously livid against the superpower.
The Yellows’ dissipating claims against China as an imperialist power were suddenly resurrected. Top Sinophobe Antonio Carpio claimed that China’s donation of 400,000 vaccine doses (and another 600 million promised) was in exchange for Duterte’s surrender of the reef.
It is appalling that instead of some Biden official calling Duterte that the US is working hard to acquire vaccines for us, an American official called to prod us to fight China.
National Security Adviser Sullivan called his Filipino counterpart Hermogenes Esperon last week and told him of “the applicability of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in the South China Sea.” Anybody familiar with the treaty and aware of the Julian Felipe Reef situation would know that Sullivan was telling Esperon that the US Navy would defend Filipino vessels if the Chinese attacked them at the reef.
A source overhearing the phone conversation said Esperon sarcastically replied: “I’ve heard that before.”
For starters, let’s face reality. Julian Felipe Reef, which we named as such only in 2008, is as much our territory to be fought for as Sabah is. That pipe dream is a ship that has long sailed. Forget it, move on.
The Vietnamese grabbed it in 1974 and 1988, setting up four garrisons on artificial islands while the Chinese moved on it in 1988, building two installations. The two countries each claim that the reef is part of the bigger archipelago that is its sovereign territory. We now claim only sovereign rights to it as it is within our exclusive economic zone.
Don’t you wonder why, if Chinese “maritime militia” vessels are there, Vietnam hasn’t protested. considering that the Vietnamese consider China its arch enemy in the South China Sea, since it killed dozens of its navy men in clashes in the Paracels in 1974 and Johnson Reef in 1988? Don’t you wonder why the People’s Liberation Army would deploy militia vessels there, only a stone’s throw from Vietnamese bases? C’mon! Would Lorenzana have deployed tanod bayan from nearby towns to patrol NPA lairs in the boondocks?
The truth is that this Felipe brouhaha has been a huge propaganda project. This would be obvious with the source of the photos that showed 200 vessels at Julian Felipe Reef: US government agency, most probably a spy agency.
It was the multiagency National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) that broke the story when it issued on March 20, 2021 a press release claiming that 220 vessels “believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personal” were at the reef.
How could it claim that when its account was based on a “Coast Guard” report, which had photos taken one kilometer away from the vessels, and which therefore couldn’t show a militia with arms or a gun placement mounted on any vessel? Does anybody know what a Chinese militia man or a Chinese militia vessel looks like?
More importantly the photos were taken two weeks before that on March 7 as the stamp on the photos indicates. The next day Lorenzana on his Facebook page posted essentially the same Task Force report. How could they have known that the vessels were manned by Chinese militia and how many they were?
It would only be two days later that the satellite photos of the reef showing that there were 200 fishing vessels were published prominently in international and local media. Most of the reports did not mention the source of the photos, which was from a small, high-tech Florida firm, Simularity Inc.
The firm uses a state-of-the art proprietary (i.e, secret) technology that uses artificial intelligence to analyze new satellite-based images taken on different days. The only section in its website is its “South China Sea Rapid Alert Platform.”
One would be naïve not to believe that the US spy agency contracted its services, considering that only kind of state entity can afford Simularity’s fees.
Photos provided by US entity, not PH Coast Guard
Simularity, according to its own account, had been monitoring “Whitsun Reef” (Julian Felipe) since October 2020. It did not disclose why it did so for that particular reef. The reason though would be obvious as explained below.
The firm processed satellite photos from the European Space Agency. Yes, it asked that agency, whose powerful telescopes are normally aimed at the stars, to instead aim at, of all places, Whitsun Reef.
The reef’s distinction apparently is that it has been a refuge for Chinese fishing fleets as the reef’s boomerang shape functions as a shield from storms and even high tide.
As such, Simularity processed photos when the reef was empty and when it had vessels there when they were on a rest-stop or evading a storm or the high tide. The vessels’ formation, tied up together, is the usual one that fishing vessels owned by a single company take to protect themselves from the surge of high tide and to enable their personnel to move from one vessel to another. It has been the US propaganda campaign to claim that Chinese fishing fleets are “militias” out to occupy the entire South China Sea, and the formation a military one, similar to that of soldiers’ “parade and review.”
Simularity’s March 19 photo showed that there were ships massing there, to peak on March 24. That was what a US intelligence officer had been waiting for to kick off Blinken’s anti-China offensive and the reason why Simularity was contracted to monitor the reef.
The NTF-WPS and Lorenzana’s source for their March 20 and 21 claim of Chinese militia vessels in Julian Felipe Reef wasn’t the Philippine Coast Guard. It was a US intelligence agency that gave them Simularity’s photo a day before when Chinese fishing vessels were massed there before a storm. Our security officials believed the Americans, and went to town screaming that the Chinese maritime militia were invading our territory. With the US and the Yellows’ massive propaganda machine, that narrative has painted Duterte into a corner.
If it were indeed an invasion of Chinese militia, shouldn’t they have first briefed Duterte and the foreign affairs secretary, and then, as diplomacy with a friendly country normally requires, undertake talks to ask for an explanation, and if unsatisfied, undertake negotiations?
But of course, we are a powerful nation, with our defense secretary demanding the Chinese vessels “leave at once” and our senators shouting as if telling kids off, “Ang titigas ng ulo niyo.”