POSTSCRIPT / March 19, 2017 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Du30 better pause, review China moves

BEFORE President Rodrigo Duterte sinks deeper into what could be a morass of miscalculations on relations with China, he may want to consider bipartisan consultations and a rethinking of options.

Disturbing issues are piling up fast. After Duterte’s failure to object to China’s militarizing strategic features of the West Philippine Sea and then allowing its exploring the Benham Rise on the east (Pacific) side, another concern has popped up, this time at Panatag shoal off Zambales.

The wires reported yesterday a Chinese official announcing the start of “preparatory work this year for environmental monitoring stations” on Scarborough (Panatag) and other strategic points in the South China Sea where some $5-trillon worth of goods pass annually.

Being quoted was Mayor Xiao Jie of Sansha City on the island-province of Hainan, the administrative base overseeing disputed South China Sea islands and reefs, including Panatag, that it purportedly controls.

Malacañang has not commented on this report, but the United States earlier served notice that it would take appropriate action if China attempted to initiate military use of artificial islands it has built in the SCS that would impede normal maritime traffic.

State Secretary Rex Tillerson is expected to elaborate on this US position in his scheduled talks this weekend with his counterpart in Beijing.

Unconfirmed reports said that the US, a treaty ally of the Philippines, has told China it would not take kindly to a buildup of Panatag, a traditional fishing ground of Filipinos less than 125 nautical miles from Manila and Subic Bay, the former site of a giant US naval base.

In Washington this week, Senators Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin filed the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions bill that would deny visas for Chinese nationals who help build South and East China Sea projects.

The proposed law would also clamp down on foreign financial bodies that “knowingly conduct or facilitate a significant financial transaction for sanctioned individuals and entities” if China steps up activity at Panatag, among other actions.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called the Senate bill “extremely grating” and said it showed the “arrogance and ignorance” of the proponents.

• Top-level bipartisan consultation urged

IN THE FACE of these and related developments, President Duterte may want to reassess China’s intentions and rethink his options — in consultation with key defense and diplomatic officials, as well as a top-level bipartisan security panel.

As noted in this column last Thursday, the President being a novice in the conduct of foreign relations may find his sailing solo – as in his giving China instant permission to conduct seismic surveys at the Benham Rise continental shelf — fraught with risks.

Mayor Xiao reportedly told the official Hainan Daily that the Panatag monitoring station, along with docks and other infrastructure, is part of island restoration and erosion prevention efforts planned for 2017.

Xiao mentioned other stations to be built on features in the Paracel islands that China has controlled since seizing parts of the group from Vietnam in 1974.

It is noteworthy that Hainan province, from where Chinese administrative control emanates, is some 600 kilometers from Panatag, which is just 200 kilometers from Zambales.

Any Chinese buildup at Panatag would be a big blow to President Duterte’s seeming confidence that Beijing would keep its word not to tamper with the environment or do proprietary acts in that fishing ground within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.

As President, Duterte may want to join a group of lawmakers set to go to Pagasa, a town on one of the major islands in the disputed Spratly Group off Palawan. The Philippine flag flies over the thriving, though isolated, Filipino community on the wind-swept island.

The lawmakers’ visit cum inspection has been reset on account of rainy weather that has made the gravelly landing strip unsafe for aircraft for days.

• US flashes warning signals on SCS

IN THE US Senate, Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing last January that China’s island-building, presumably including any similar activity in the Panatag shoal, would be “illegal.”

Last June, then US Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned that any Chinese move to reclaim land at Panatag would “result in actions being taken by both the United States and… by others in the region which would have the effect of not only increasing tensions, but isolating China.”

A spokeswoman of the State Department reiterated days ago a call on South China Sea claimants to avoid building on disputed maritime features.

Reuters quoted Bonnie Glazer, an Asia expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, as saying that China’s buildup at Panatag, if pushed through, could wreck efforts to agree on a code of conduct for the region that Beijing professes to support.

She noted that parties to a 2002 declaration of conduct had agreed to refrain from inhabiting uninhabited maritime features. But China has made them habitable by dredging marine materials and reclaiming the areas.

During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson said China should be denied access to the artificial islands it has built up. He said later that in the event of a “contingency,” the US and its allies “must be capable of limiting China’s access to and use of” those islands to pose a threat.

With his blooming liaison with China, how would Duterte handle this belated show of American concern? Whatever, he should not go solo. He should consult.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 19, 2017)

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