EIGHT senators are ready to file Senate Resolution 761 expressing, as The Manila Times front page story the other day put it, “grave concern over the increasing militarization by China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).” The resolution depicts the highest level of alarm taken by the country since the Scarborough Shoal standoff beginning in April 2012. That incident in which the Philippine Navy sent a ship to drive away a Chinese vessel fishing in the waters called Bajo de Masinloc by local folk teetered on the brink of a shooting encounter when China promptly sent in its own flotilla of sea vessels to protect the Chinese fishermen. By the end of the impasse, the Philippines’ starship BRP Gregorio del Pilar together with other navy boats had backed off – the sorry picture of the Philippines’ learning, in the words of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, “to its cost” the lesson that though China is not a war-hungry nation, neither is it a country that will back away from a fight when “pushed against the wall.”
If Senate Resolution 761 is passed and the Department of Foreign Affairs files a diplomatic protest against China as the resolution demands, might not that constitute one more pushing of China against the wall and thereby cause it to fight back one more time? How will the Philippines manage that counter-attack this time around?
In the case of the Scarborough Shoal standoff, the Philippines managed to grab at the arbitration case it filed against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague with which to eke out a graceful exit from what already was a military crisis. In other words, the arbitration case got the Philippines out of an imminent armed confrontation with the Asian behemoth.
But in the event of an approval of the Senate Resolution 761, it will have to mandate the President to deal with the South China Sea issue with China already within the tenor of a threat of war. The implications of Senate Resolution 761 make it a real precursor to an outbreak of war between the Philippines and China.
In fact, the Times story cites National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon’s declaration that the Philippines may “use force if Filipino soldiers and civilians based in the islands in the West Philippine Sea are harmed by China.”
Nothing unduly alarming about the statement. It is a policy of every state to protect its people from harm. It is a different matter, however, when you state it publicly under circumstances that China is depicted in the media and elsewhere in the public information sector as out to invade the Philippines. Here you are up against a giant, but instead of seeking peace, you shout war.
And yet, is China being that belligerent giant in the hypothetical situation cited? Nonesuch, as Philippine circumstances would uphold. The Philippines is host to millions of Chinese nationals, to millions more citizens who though of Filipino registration are actually of ethnic Chinese descent. And in the overall economy, I will cite from memory that 8 out of the 10 richest persons in the Philippines are Chinese.
In an article I cited in a previous column, “China’s Pursuit of Overseas Security” published by Rand Corp., a comprehensive study of China’s worldwide concerns arrives at a conclusion that overseas Chinese interests have become part of China’s national interest. Why would China attack the Philippines when attacking it means attacking its own Chinese nationals and economic interests?
Senate Resolution 761 has no basis whatsoever. According to the Times story, the resolution cited US intelligence sources regarding “China’s installation of anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems in Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) reef, Zamora (Subi) reef and Panganiban (Mischief) reef in the Spratly islands over which the Philippines has sovereign rights based on the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.”
So, the resolution is a grand push of the strong US propaganda that the PCA ruling favors the Philippines in its dispute with China in the South China Sea. Such position includes a distortion of the actual award as worded in the PCA.
The US has been urging internationalization of the issue for a very obvious reason: such internationalizing would involve itself. The entire administration of President Noynoy Aquino was noted for its singular upholding of this US position, its hallmark being the Scarborough Shoal bluff and its eventual downsizing to the PCA arbitration case. With Duterte’s intransigence in pursuing his bilateral, non-belligerent approach to the South China Sea dispute, the US has been losing out in the initiative. Senate Resolution 761 definitely has a way of revitalizing it.
In the other respect, of the PCA ruling being perceived as favoring the Philippines, the following portion of the PCA Award in the case should stand as clarification:
“The Tribunal’s findings with respect to Submissions No. 3, 5, and 7 (stating the Philippine position in the case), however, and its conclusion that there is no possible overlap of entitlements that would require delimitation, render that concern purely hypothetical and no basis for further action by the Tribunal.
“Going forward, it is a fundamental principle of international law that ‘bad faith (as the Philippine position in the case would ascribe to China in Chinese artificial-island-building spree in the South China Sea) is not presumed…’
“It goes without saying that both Parties are obliged to resolve their disputes peacefully and to comply with the Convention and this Award in good faith.
Moreover, the PCA states: “It (the Tribunal) acknowledges that due to China’s invocation of Article 298’s (of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea) exclusion for sea boundary delimitation, the Tribunal could not proceed to delimit any areas of overlapping entitlements.”
In other words, the PCA award did not rule on any territorial claims, that is, in layman’s terms, judging who owns what. This is precisely because this issue is already well delineated in the convention; the PCA, by its position, can no longer make any further ruling on the matter.