Mischief Reef is part of the disputed Spratly Islands. It is merely 217 kilometers from Palawan, the nearest landmass. From the ancient maps to internationally-accepted territorial delineations, it has been, with little doubt, part of Philippine EEZ. All other ownership claims rest on fraud and easily-to-debunk concoctions, like China’s favorite “nine-dash line.”
Mischief Reef, as befits the name of the once-lonely atoll that used to disappear during high tide, is area where Beijing acts with a combination of mischief and force to push through with its territorial annexations and global ambition—and wrest total control over one of the most important maritime lanes in the world. The area generally covered by what we call the West Philippine Sea is Exhibit A on how shabbily China regards its Asian neighbors and the world. There are even no pretensions such as “Manifest Destiny” —only an abuse of powerless neighbors via crude mischief and naked display of power.
The saga of Mischief Reef, from a sanctuary for Filipino fishermen and fishermen from other countries during rough weather to a staging ground for China’s territorial ambition, began modestly in 1995 with the construction by China of a platform topped by four octagonal structures with a Chinese flag on top. It was mischievously misrepresented as a mere structure for fishermen seeking shelter—perhaps to mask Beijing true designs at Mischief Reefs and the other atolls in the Spratly Islands. Much of the world did not pay mind to that mid-1990s mischief.
Recently, according to CNBC, a report that Beijing neither confirmed nor denied (which means the report was factual), Beijing has deployed missiles at Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, all part of the Spratly island group.
Mischief Reef’s evolution, from a mid-‘90s “shelter” for fishermen to its current role as a 21st century missile deployment area, was the result of a carefully-planned, heavily-funded and frenzied infrastructure build-up, then full-blast militarization, at the Spratly atolls. The missile deployment was preceded by positioning anti-aircraft guns and close-in-weapons systems at the reefs. All these structures rested on artificial islands complete with runways and hangars.
These are not defensive structures, but obvious preparations for future conflicts, according to military experts.
In theory and in practice, these reefs within the Philippine exclusive economic zone cannot be appropriated for any function except to act as sanctuaries for fishermen whiling away bad fishing weather. The main physical features of the atolls “are not features that are capable of appropriation by occupation or otherwise.” Beijing knows this but such features are just flimsy, nominal hurdles to Beijing’s ambitions.
What has happened at Mischief Reef symbolizes, again, the combination of mischief and aggression that has been the hallmarks of China’s relation with the Philippines. The sucking up to China by the government of President Duterte has left the general public clueless on China’s true designs and intentions and global ambitions. The information the public gets are the inflated scope of China’s economic assistance to the Philippines, the surging trade ties with China, the issuance of the so-called “Panda bonds,” and the influx of Chinese workers into Philippines.
What we get from the news are the aids and grants and other forms of economic collaboration with China. And those information paper over the scary aspects of the China-PH relations: the bigger and more important territorial issue, the deployment of both mischief and aggression to literally reduce us to a China vassal, and a client-state bending and bowing to China’s territory-grabbing and aggression.
The cluelessness of most Filipinos on Beijing’s real agenda was also the reason behind the meek acceptance that came in the wake of the hydrographic surveys done several years back by elements of the People’s Liberation Army at the Benham Rise.
On what official cover the PLA personnel used in their “survey” of the Rise was not even clear. But what they did after the so-called “research and survey” was reprehensible. They filed for naming rights, in Chinese, of course, on the strategic components of the Rise—a prelude, of course, to a possible grabbing of the Rise.
What was scarier, opined former national security adviser Roy Golez who just passed away, was the possible search by the Chinese for spots at the Benham Rise, those strategic areas underneath that can hide submarines.
Golez was wary of Beijing’s true intention and was vocal about it. He trained at Annapolis, probably the best school in the world for aspiring naval officers.
The tilt toward China has historic roots. China, during the old times, was our first major trading partner. There was a one-way migration pattern that took place—impoverished Chinese families from the Southern part moving to the Philippines to make their fortune (they did).
But there was no imperial component of that earlier relationship; it was just about migration and trade.
Today, it is an entirely different relationship, a sort of master-serf relations. It made the recent celebration of Independence Day a hollow affair. We probably celebrated a new version of “Subservience Day” a few days back; only there is a new master. And that new master is China.