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Spratly issue: Here we go again

Republika

FAIR COMMENT | Alito L. Malinao

As diplomatic reporter of the Manila Standard in the late 1990s, I started writing about the maritime row in the South China Sea and two decades later, I am still writing about it. The reason: the dispute remains unresolved despite legal victories won by the Philippines and because of China’s obstinate and anachronistic view that the whole of the South China Sea is theirs since “ancient times.”


Now the sea quarrel is again on the limelight after the November 16 incident when the Chinese Coast Guard blocked and used water cannons on Philippine boats bringing supplies to Filipino soldiers stationed at Ayungin Shoal, which is part of the Kalayaan Group of Islands where our sovereignty was recognized in the 2016 arbitral ruling.


In the commemorative summit between ASEAN and its dialogue partners that include China last November 22, President Duterte expressed strong indignation over the incident. “We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal…This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnerships,” the President said.


In the speech, obviously written by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr., Mr. Duterte called on stakeholders to exercise utmost self-restraint, avoid the escalation of tension, adding that there is simply no way out of this colossal problem but the rule of law.


Double-speak


In the forum, conducted virtually, China’s President Xi Jinping, considered by many as a soft-spoken dictator, retorted with his now common reassurance. He said, “China was, is and will always be a good neighbor, good friend and good partner of ASEAN.”


Xi said that China would not bully its smaller neighbors in the region. “We would never seek hegemony nor take advantage of its size to coerce smaller countries and would work with ASEAN to eliminate interference.
Nice words. But in truth these are diplomatic gibberish. China’s expansionism in the area is clear to everyone.


In April satellite images taken from former reefs and atolls, all under our sovereignty, showed that China has built permanent military bases in the reclaimed the area. And this include Subi Reef, Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Panganiban (Mischief) and McKennan (Hughes).


So, who is Xi kidding when he says that China is a good neighbor and would not seek hegemony in the region?


Undependable ally


In his diplomatic protest after the Ayungin incident, Secretary Locsin said that this could trigger a response from the Americans under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) because the attack on the supply boats was an attack on a Philippine territory.


But can we depend on the U.S. in case we are attacked by China?
The MDT provides that both countries will have to go through proper constitutional bodies before it can declare war against any country. In the U.S. it has to be the U.S. Congress, in the Philippines, the Philippine Congress.


Under the present Duterte administration, it is foolhardy to think that the U.S., under President Joe Biden and the Democrat-controlled Congress, would immediately come to our succor if attached by China. Biden was the vice president when Duterte, piqued by President Barack Obama’s criticism of his war on drugs, called Obama “son of a bitch.”


So, do you still think that the U.S. will automatically send its gunboats and war planes to come to our succor if attacked by China?
As they say, “Go, tell it to the marines.”


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