Sun. Jun 20th, 2021
“China’s maritime militia ruffles Philippine waters” barks the headline of The Australian for a story written by Amanda Hodge its South East Asia correspondent based in Jakarta, while offering no evidence that the ships are not just large fishing vessels. She even quoted Jay pro-American Batongbacal as he stokes flames into the discussion by saying “the most likely explanation for the Chinese fleet’s presence is to deploy ‘reserve forces that can be called upon to (quickly) enforce China’s dominance in the South China Sea’.”

The latest media-driven agit-prop “tempest in a teapot” over the fake news of “220 Chinese militia boats” moored at the cove of Whitsun Reef and “invasion” of Philippine territory started March 20, 2021. The fake news is easily uncovered by examining the details of the reports, such as that of the Task Force – WPS of the AFP which the ships were “believed to be manned by militia personnel”.

The TF-WPS had no basis to claim the boats were militia boats yet all the headlines of major Philippine media blared “militia”. Philippine mainstream media are essentially controlled by the US through direct funding such as NED for Rappler and Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs) or investments in media companies, or direct ownership of oligarchs bound to West interests.

 Philippine oligarchy and media magnates’ ties to Western interests are essential to understanding Philippine media, although we cannot give exhaustive details we cite some: the Lopez group owned by American citizen and resident Gabby Lopez (whatever apparent divestment he now claims), Manny Pangilinan co-chair of US-PHL Society; Rappler, NED funded, and more. 

Debunking the deceptions

Obviously this agit-prop campaign was well planned to besiege the Duterte administration as being “too soft” and “too friendly” to China and, thus, being “taken advantage of” and weak on “Philippine claims”. They are all easily and readily debunked, but the evidence and arguments don’t reach many Filipinos who are also biased against China by a decade of anti-China agit-prop.

On the Philippine territorial and EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) claims the counter-claims not only of China but also of Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia over the disputed sea immediately deflates Philippine claims of “exclusivity” and more so of “territoriality”. But what sticks like a sore thumb for the anti-China agitators is Vietnam which already has 5 established structure in the area the PHL is claiming.

Why aren’t the anti-China voices denouncing the 5 Vietnamese structures, one a four-story building jutting out of the sea, around Union Banks where Whitsun Reef also is? While this information immediately opened many eyes to the farce of the PHL pressing on China while ignoring the in-the-face defiance of Vietnam of the PHL’s claims, it does not reach enough Filipinos.

PHL society’s internal torments

There are innumerable contradictions within Philippine society and its institutions relative to its foreign relations and issues involved in it. This clearly showed at the onset of the “220 militia boats” agit-prop operation when DFA Secretary Locsin was reported by the Manila Bulletin as “irked” by the media reports and would only respond to the AFP’s advice on the issue.

The TF-WPS report was dubious by the very words it used, “… believed to be manned by militia personnel” – and that is to be taken as an intelligence report? But the issue went to Lorenzana who issued very misleading statements and even invoking “Philippine territory” (as the news reports quote” over the Union Banks which anyone educated on the UNCLOS knows is totally wrong.

Acting on defense establishment’s advice Locsin has no choice, but in utterly unnecessary and undiplomatic language to the media said,” So recommended by General Esperon this noon by What’s App. I got the coordinates, so to speak. And relayed to my legal artillery, ‘Fire at will.’” Which some media interpreted to be firing cannons at the Chinese vessels. How utterly ridiculous  people.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi holds talks with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin in Nanping, southeast China’s Fujian Province, April 2, 2021. (Xinhua)

Reality is much more stable

While the “tempest in a teapot” continued it thunder and lightning in the Philippine media acene and in the childlike minds of many Filipino minds dumbed down by mainstream media, the scene across Asia continued to flow calmly and serenely as set out by the regional leadership: China’s State Minister Wang Yi and four ASEAN foreign ministers met at Nanping, Fujian, China.

China and the four minsters of ASEAN were meeting to continue building the better Asia and the better world through this Covid-19 pandemic crisis, efforts towards economic recovery, distribution of vaccines, reinforcing commitments towards the SCS Code of Conduct, strengthening RCEP. Locsin had a bilateral with Wang Yi the tone of which was reflected by the photo of the two elbows bumping.

I received tests concerned about the rising anti-China FB and YouTube comments due to the “220 militia ships” fake news. I said, “I now know what Digong is up to so please relax.” Like the Gem-Ver imbroglio this ‘militia boats farce’ will pass, when two China donated Pasig River bridges are inaugurated soon and the 1 million-a-month vaccine arrivals from China too – celebrations will fill the news.

Lorenzana’s “bad cop” role

While the Philippine defense establishment apparently had a consensus to whip up the fake issue of the “220 militia boats” as evidenced by Sec. Hermongenes Esperon’s advice to Locsin and Sec. Lorenzana’s follow through on March 21 onwards, Lorenzana had already tried to apply the brakes on the anti-China reactions rising from the fanning of the fake news.

On March 29 and 30, Lorenzana was reported and quoted by new media, “… But our navy ship will be patrolling the area, the general vicinity of the area. We don’t want to be labelled as provoking, by retaining our navy ships in the area. And we will be charged for provoking an incident and militarizing the area.” It was a step down from the earlier rhetoric, but a day or two later the tone changed again.

By April 3 news media reported the “annoyed” Philippine defense chief with nasty words “renewed a demand for dozens of Chinese vessels to leave”. Why should Lorenzana be annoyed when, as promised by the Chinese embassy, almost 180 ships had left to go back fishing. I was as perplexed as the Chinese embassy in its reply to Lorenzana for the “unprofessional” remarks of Lorenzana.

The thought occurred to me that Lorenzana was really already going out of bounds addressing the Chinese embassy directly in his remarks because that’s the responsible and function of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Did Malacañang give Lorenzana the “bad cop” role so Locsin can go on to function effectively with cooperative relations with the embassy and China?

Duterte “pulling the rug” from under 1Sangbayan?

It is clear that the fake new agit-prop operations was started by the anti-Duterte, anti-China groups as a regular operation and part of the heightened campaign in preparation of the 2022 elections to tag Duterte as “weak on West Philippine Sea” claims and “soft on China”. There is another angle, to inject that “discord between Duterte and military brass” narrative.

Yahoo News, Al Jazeera and many other Western news media insert comments to the fake Chinese militia boat news, “Critics have repeatedly called out President Rodrigo Duterte, who has nurtured friendly ties with Beijing since taking office in 2016, for not standing up to China’s aggressive behavior and deciding not to immediately demand Chinese compliance with an international arbitration ruling…”

With Lorenzana, and later unofficial presidential mouthpiece Sal Panelo joining in to buttress the fake news propaganda warning oof “unwanted hostilities” over it, even the traditional followers of the anti-Duterte groups are forgetting their traditional anti-China leaders and turning to the Duterte officials; meanwhile Duterte says he will talk to Ambassador Huang Xilian about the imbroglio.

Sound and fury

If one focuses attention on comment threads of the ABS-CBN group’s new sites and broadcasts, one will certainly get alarmed by the tide of anti-China sentiment being spewed. I looked at one after being called to it by PACS (Philippine Association for Chinese Studies) and noted 350 negative comments. I thought this was so small, I recall during the Gem-Ver incident it ran to thousands.

Monitoring my FB and Viber communities I clearly note that almost all other venues of exchange the concerns are the Covid-19 and the debate over Ivermectin, the lockdowns, and the employment situation. China and Philippines cooperation are focused on these real issues of the economy, health and safety of the people. These issues will still be the main concerns of the public.

On the other hand, the number of Netizens active in explaining the correct perspective on the Philippine SCS claims is really growing and getting more assertive. They understand the “disputed status” of the Philippine claim and hence cannot assume an arbitrary solution, they see the stark evidence of Vietnam’s defiance of the Philippines’ claims too and refuse to be hoodwinked by the anti-China sound and fury as empty and having no significance anymore.

President Duterte’s tactical wisdom

President Rodrigo R. Duterte knows he has the situation under his full control and relations with China are excellent. He understands that China’s statesmanship and diplomatic culture sharpened by 5,000 years of experience, will maintain a forbearing perspective over the quirky, childlike political culture of the Filipinos and some of its institutions and officials.

Duterte also knows needs the “soft on China” and “weak on the West Philippine Sea claim” allegations against him right now like a “hole in the head” while he is wrestling with the still persistent Covid-19 crisis and the economic malady it has brought, with the final election hunting season now actually open, so any diversion away from opposition monopoly of issues is useful.

The “tempest in a teapot” will run its course, as all agit-prop operation based on fake news goes, the good news from China economic ascendancy in the time of the Covid, the growing numbers of accomplished projects between the Philippines and China in the coming months, the goodwill campaign by the Chinese Embassy will prevail, and sound and fury will be replaced by praises and songs.

Leave a Reply