Harassed in our own waters

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Teresa S. Abesamis-125

Grassroots & Governance

Harassed in our own waters

First of all, why is the China Coast Guard patrolling our own waters, the West Philippine Sea, which by international law, the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) to which both China and the Philippines are signatories, is recognized as clearly part of the territory of our country? Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano’s excuse (on behalf of whom?) that the brouhaha was nothing but a misunderstanding makes the situation we have gotten ourselves into even more pathetic.

Here were our fishermen, among the poorest of our people, who provide food for us, helpless against intruders who behave as if they own our territory? Our fishermen were intimidated, let us not belittle what the China Coast Guard was doing, into sharing their catch from our own waters in exchange for paltry tokens. They were fishing in undisputed waters on Panatag Shoal within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which are less than 150 miles from the shores of Zambales.

We won our case in the UN Arbitral Court in 2016, soon after the current administration took over Malacañang. The Aquino government filed the case partly and precisely because of harassment of our fishermen. Yet our current government chose not to make it an issue in the ASEAN meeting which we hosted. This was clearly a lost opportunity to mobilize support from Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and other claimants to parts of the South China Sea if only to deter further aggressiveness on the part of China.

Today, at an incredibly rapid pace, China has turned our neighboring waters, including those that are within our EEZ into sites for military bases, some reportedly equipped with missiles which can easily reach our islands.

The swiftness with which the Chinese have taken possession of the disputed waters by constructing the bases makes me suspect that they were taking advantage of the US vs. North Korea disputes over the missile tests by North Korea, which were demonstrably getting closer and closer to reaching the United States.

Because of the threat of a nuclear disaster, it seems the United States became more restrained in responding to the braggadocio by Kim Jong Un. Otherwise, the United States and its allies would have acted more aggressively in repelling China’s aggressive buildups on the South China Sea.

Now that the massive bases construction has been accomplished, North Korea has opened itself up to one-on-one negotiations with the President of the United States. If we looked closely enough at recent events, we would have noticed that North Korea, a “client” of the People’s Republic of China has, following consultations with its benefactor, decreased its missile aggressiveness, and wonder of wonders, has even declared its openness to de-nuclearization.

As I write this column, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un are on their way to Sentosa Island to begin their negotiations.

Truly, we live in interesting times.

In his book entitled The Hundred Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, Michael Pillsbury, a former CIA operative who read and spoke Mandarin writes about the many mistakes the United States made in its foreign policy toward China. From the time of President Nixon, the USA had taken steps through technology transfer and investments, to help enable China to catch up with modern technology, and economic opportunities, in the belief that China would be an effective countervailing force against Soviet Russia which was then its rival for hegemony as a world power. Even President Clinton believed, as their flawed intelligence indicated, that China was moving toward becoming a democratic state.

fish and fishing vessel

The USA underestimated the negative effect that their flawed intelligence in Serbia, which in 1999 caused their bombs to accidentally hit part of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade killing three of the embassy staff. They did not expect that it would cause such deep-seated anti-Americanism in China.

Chinese media reported that the leaders of China interpreted the bombing accident, despite Clinton’s profuse apologies for the “accident” as the USA’s “throwing a pebble in the street” to test their resolve. This incident may have caused a dramatic change in China’s attitudes toward the US government from friendly cooperation to hostility, overt and covert.

As we should know by now, the Chinese tend to think deeply, subtly, and long term. The fact that the Communist Party decides through its Politburo which runs the country has enabled longer-term strategic planning than other nations can with their frequent changes in leadership through general elections. In fact, they have recently chosen to elect President Xi Jinping President for life. This will better enable China to persevere in its long-term goal of becoming the world’s richest and most powerful nation.

Fortunately, the screening process of the Politburo appears to select the best and the brightest, perhaps because of superior Confucian-inspired educational systems and professional civil service. Not all nations are so blessed.

Where does that leave us?

Is President Duterte actually and consciously making his pivot to China because of the realization that they are becoming the world’s most powerful nation? It is just our luck or misfortune to be located in our part of the world, right smack in the middle of strategically important Asia-Pacific territories on land and sea.

But do we have to be so accommodating, nay, obsequious and subservient? Clearly China needed us, just as much as we needed them. But it is all academic now. Possession, it is said, is best proof of ownership. China is now in possession of much of our marine territories, some of which are believed to abound in mineral wealth.

To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the ancient military strategist, the greatest general is one who can take over a territory without the use of arms. Further, he says, to win a war without fighting is the great challenge. Amen.

So, do we just let them run roughshod over our fishermen who are merely trying to make a modest living out of our own marine resources? Do we have to just turn our eyes away while China’s Coast Guard patrols our own waters, even harassing our powerless fishermen by intimidating them into sharing their little catch?

Surely, there is a limit to surrendering our sovereignty and dignity.

How can we defend them when our own Foreign Secretary speaks in defense of Chinese Coast Guard abuses? Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana says that the Philippines should file a diplomatic protest to defend our fishermen and their right to fish in our own waters.

Do we still need to confirm the reports? Surely, that is not difficult to do. It seems we just don’t have enough whatzamacallits to stick our necks out for our own people.

Meanwhile, China stands by quietly while their mentee Kim Jong Un negotiates with Trump. I wonder what Kim’s playbook looks like following his consultative visits to China prior to the meeting with Trump.

Does our country figure at all in this? And what happens now to our fishermen? Do they really have to learn new livelihood skills as carpenters, welders, or plumbers because we have given up our rights to our marine resources?


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant.